ConservativeHome: The national and international health nannies who are threatening our freedoms

This article was first published on ConservativeHome.

Those who value freedom of choice when it comes to issues of lifestyle celebrated the demise of Public Health England. But the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), which is set to take over the part of PHE’s former brief relating to issues like obesity and tobacco, might not be an improvement after all.

The OHID has set itself a worryingly wide remit to police our lifestyles, centring around two perceived crises: obesity and smoking.

On obesity, the threats to liberty are clear. Boris Johnson initially said he was not keen on the idea of taxing sugar and salt, as recommended in the National Food Strategy penned by Henry Dimbleby, the government’s food tsar and the owner of the ‘posh fast food chain’, Leon.

But Johnson also said, back in 2019 when he was standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party, that he would “roll back the continuing creep of the nanny state”. He promised a full and frank review of ‘sin taxes’, including Theresa May’s soft drinks sugar levy.

His platform was celebrated by freedom-loving Tories. But since he was hospitalised by the coronavirus and put the seriousness of his illness down to his weight, Johnson has taken it upon himself to make Britain thinner. Since then, the Government has released a raft of policies aimed at tackling the obesity crisis, including a junk food ad ban, a £100 million fund to support ‘weight management services’ and a patronising rewards scheme for families who buy more fruit and vegetables.

The further growth of the nanny state in this area, then, is far from out of the question. That is especially true when the growing interest of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in this area of policy is added into the equation.

The WHO, undeterred by its costly Covid failures, consistently issues diktats to government around the world, instructing it to combat obesity by taxing its poorest citizens’ shopping, restricting advertising, introducing new food packaging regulations, and countless other nanny-state measures which undermine basic freedoms and never work. It even ‘chose’ the UK to lead its new ‘Sugar and Calorie Reduction Network’.

There is a real risk that the OHID will become a stooge for the WHO. It seems to embody the same warped logic about the need to centralise lifestyle choices and ‘correct’ issues like obesity by cracking down on some of our most fundamental freedoms.

On the issue of tobacco and nicotine addiction, the growing influence of the WHO threatens to be even more harmful. Unsurprisingly, it seeks the complete eradication of harm through high taxes and the banning of reduced risk products like vaping.

The problem with the WHO’s approach to public health is a fundamental one. It’s an echo chamber.

Next month, for example, it will hold its COP9 meeting on ‘tobacco control’. The ‘COP’ in COP9 stands for ‘Congress of the Parties’. In reality, the meeting will be a handful of individuals from one side of the debate taking decisions for everyone else on the planet. It doesn’t represent any ‘parties’.

The WHO – and in particular its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which will host COP9 – produces in an opaque and unaccountable way its policy diktats, which are then adopted by public health lobbies around the world (such as the OHID here in Britain).

In past COP meetings, the public and the media have been shut out. Organisations and individuals even remotely associated with the tobacco industry, which houses the knowledge and the resources to make a difference, have been banned.

Records of FCTC implementation deliberations have been increasingly stripped bare, to the point that future COPs can be expected to produce only summary reports covering only ultimate conclusions and outcomes, but with no way for anybody (public, media, affected groups) to meaningfully analyse them or understand who said what and why.

How can one expect a balanced, evidence-led debate and decision-making process when so many actors, including the general public, law enforcement, the media, and industry (not only tobacco manufacturers but everyone in the supply chain – retailers, farmers, aligned industries, the list goes on) are excluded from the dialogue?

Industry criticism that its exclusion from FCTC deliberations means the process lacks transparency due to the lack of input from stakeholders, namely both the tobacco industry and groups such as the International Tobacco Growers Association, are routinely ignored.

During COP7, when a group of tobacco farmers showed up outside of the COP7 meetings in Delhi to peacefully protest their continuing exclusion from deliberations, the Convention Secretariat called upon security to round them up and bus them miles away, to a location where COP delegates could neither see nor hear them.

The WHO’s rigid stance on tobacco and reduced risk products (RRPs), such as vaping, means poorer smokers are more likely to struggle with quitting, or to smoke as relief from stress, depression or other mental health problems. But it isn’t willing to engage on these points. It only serves its own agenda.

With the WHO pushing its interventionist agenda, and the OHID acting as its stooge, there is no limit to how wide the nanny state can grow, even under a Conservative government.