Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy is 290 pages long but its key policy recommendations can be summed up in a few words: new taxes on sugary and salty foods and a system whereby vegetables are provided by the NHS on prescription.
Putting that second yes-and-ho idea aside for the time being – sin taxes represent an old idea and a jaded way of thinking about public health policy which ought to have faded from public attention by now. No country taxes sugar or salt – Britain would be the first – and there are good reasons for that.
Punitive taxes of this kind make the poor poorer. After a year-and-a-half of immeasurable strain on household finances, the last thing a government of any political persuasion should want to do is heap new, unnecessary tax burdens on working families. Endless research points to the fact that, unsurprisingly, making the weekly shopping trip more expensive hurts the poor more than anyone else.
Being poor is expensive. The poverty premium means poor people already pay through the nose for energy, credit, insurance and other essentials. Henry Dimbleby, the son of David Dimbleby and the epitome of socio-economic privilege, could never begin to understand the implications of the policies he is proposing. He would hardly notice if the price of a box of Frosties went up by 87p, as would be the case under his proposal – but a working parent shopping to feed their children would feel the strain.
The costs aren’t justified by the outcomes because, as we know from Theresa May’s tax on sugary soft drinks, sin taxes don’t work. When consumers are confronted with the fact that their sugary drink of choice costs more than it did last week, one of three things happens.
Either they fork out and pay the extra money, they switch to other high-calorie, high-sugar alternatives like fruit juices, or they offset the price difference by opting for cheaper, own-brand alternatives with the same sugar content. The result is that sugar consumption is unaffected.
But whether sugar taxes reduce sugar intake is beside the point. If they were a silver bullet which made unnecessary sugar consumption completely unfeasible (which could conceivably happen, if the tax crept high enough) would that outcome actually be desirable? Do we want to live in a country where our behaviour is moulded to the whims of the state, where our lifestyle choices are entirely predictable because everything has been predetermined in Whitehall?
Besides the sugar and salt taxes, the other flagship policy in the report is even more revealing – vegetable prescriptions on the NHS. First of all, like taxing food, it plainly hasn’t been properly thought through. The NHS prescription charge is £9.35 and a bag of carrots from Tesco costs 40p. You would have to order a truckload of vegetables each time to make it worthwhile.
More importantly, this tells us a great deal about the way Dimbleby and apologists of the National Food Strategy see Britain. They surely are not under the impression that people cannot afford the 40p Tesco bag of carrots, especially given their apparent reliance on junk food (an 80g bag of carrot sticks in McDonald’s costs 79p.)
So what problem, then, is stopping people buying vegetables now which would be solved by prescribing them on the NHS? The only explanation is that Dimbleby thinks the working classes are either lazy or stupid – or both.
Obese people are not helpless victims of the maleficent junk food industry, waiting for the benevolent hand of government to reach down and rescue us from our plight. If Dimbleby thinks veg on the NHS will solve the obesity crisis, he must have a dim view of obese people. The attitude implied in his approach to the issue is patronising and infantilising.
Obesity is Britain’s next pandemic but public health nannies are asleep at the wheel. As food regulations follow the tired tobacco playbook, next year we might see doting parents queuing up in a sad line to pick up their reduced sugar, low fat NHS Easter eggs in their plain, unbranded boxes where the only splash of colour is a graphic image warning you of the health dangers of overindulging.
The public health lobby, which has the ear of government and claims to be acting in our best interests, needs to wake up. If we continue down this path, the obesity pandemic could become even more damaging for civil liberties and class relations than the last one. Despite an initial slap-down from Boris, the omens are not good. The growth of the nanny state is showing no signs of slowing down.