1828: A lack of evidence-based policy on obesity will cost us dearly

This article was published on 1828.

In South Shields, a local authority recently denied permission for an entertainment complex to set up three ‘independent takeaway units’ to sell food. The plan would have provided full-time employment for nine people, but South Tyneside Council rejected it on the grounds that it could clash with the council’s drive to reduce obesity. This is despite the council also admitting it had no detail on what food would be served.

This extraordinary case of nanny-state Nimbyism is just the latest example of how the current obsession with slimming Britain down by restricting access to unhealthy food is doing us all a great disservice.

On a national level, the government’s Health and Care Bill is set to introduce a slew of new advertising and sales restrictions around HFSS foods (those high in fat, sugar or salt) in an effort to stop rising obesity in its tracks. But there are concerns that the negative consequences of such an approach could far outweigh the positives, especially as we head full-throttle into a bracing cost-of-living crisis.

The new rules in the Health & Care Bill include the long-touted ‘junk food ad ban’. Advertising for foods the government has decided are unhealthy (which include the likes of mustard, yoghurt and tinned fruit) will be banned before 9pm on TV and radio as part of a new ‘watershed’, and at all times online.

Even if there were evidence that online advertising of unhealthy foods is a crisis that needs to be tackled urgently, the ad ban would still be a terrible idea. But it is not even a real problem, let alone a crisis needing a state-imposed solution.

The ad ban policy sparked alarm in the food industry when it was first announced back in 2020, and other industries such as broadcasting and advertising are also set to take a substantial hit from it. But will it be worth it? Will it help save our children from the glut of junk food addiction? Seemingly not. According to the government’s own research into the policy, it will remove a grand total of 1.7 calories from kids’ diets per day. For context, that is approximately the equivalent of a single Tic Tac, or half a Smartie.

More directly damaging to consumers is the provision banning promotional offers such as ‘buy one get one free’ on foods proscribed by the government as ‘unhealthy’. Many families rely on these offers to make ends meet. Outlawing them for various everyday essentials will, according to a report from the Food and Drink Federation, increase annual food shopping bills by £160.

It is especially misjudged for the government to be unnecessarily adding to the unavoidable expenses of struggling households when we are hurtling towards a cost-of-living crisis which is set to be catastrophic for many. Some people are already having to choose between heating their homes and feeding themselves and their children. The new rules will disproportionately hit those on lower incomes, who will already be hardest hit by rocketing energy bills, fuel costs and so on and do not necessarily have the luxury of splashing out on healthier, organic alternatives to their usual snack foods.

With the government artificially increasing food prices in this way, there is no limit on how high they could eventually go. Tesco chairman John Allan predicted in an interview recently that prices on supermarket shelves could climb by 5 per cent by the spring as energy and other costs feed through to the High Street. The Bloomberg Agriculture Spot Subindex, which tracks the prices of agricultural commodities, is nearing an all-time high. Prices of various crops are set to rise higher than ever, sending food prices through the roof.

In fact, food commodity prices have been creeping up for some time, but it may have escaped our notice because most of those costs have not yet filtered through to consumers. In light of a cacophony of issues, ranging from supply chain problems to the growing cost of energy, substantial food prices are now inevitable.

An extra £160 each year, then, is an unwelcome addition when considered alongside all the other extra expenses we will be facing for the first time this year – food and otherwise – as a result of the cost-of-living crisis.

When the Health and Care Bill made it to the floor of the House of Lords this month, it was greeted by a chorus of common sense. Tory peers called attention to the issues with the anti-obesity provisions in the bill and, upon sending it back to the Commons, urged the government to reconsider.

As Lord Black put it: “Even now at the 11th hour they should think again because it is disproportionate based on scant, frankly implausible, evidence, it’ll damage the creative economy, which is already under such stress, and it’ll have unintended consequences like so much legislation that impacts on the media.”

Lord Vaizey pointed out that similar advertising rules have comprehensively failed elsewhere. “At the risk of being trolled both in French and Canadian on Twitter,” he said, “I gather that in Quebec – which has had a [junk food ad] ban now for 40 years – the Quebecois have got fatter faster than the rest of Canada.”

Conservative whip Baroness Penn conceded in that debate that there is a need for changes to be made to the bill to allow for “flexibility” on its implementation date, should “emerging challenges” render the planned launch date of 1 January 2023 “unworkable”.

As Baroness Penn seemed to allude to, these policies should be delayed at the very least until a time when there is not such an impending squeeze on household budgets. If there is any right time for the nanny state to intervene in our dietary choices, now is surely not it. More generally, the nanny-state approach must be rethought from the ground up. The data shows these kinds of rules have a negligible impact on calorie intake. Ham-fisted state intervention has never worked in this area, and it never will.

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