James Cracknell, the athlete turned anti-obesity campaigner, was the subject of sniggering and derision in April when he said that North Korea and Cuba had got a ‘handle on obesity’. With impressive understatement, he attributed this to both countries being ‘quite controlling on behavioural trends’. It was a bad point poorly made, but in a roundabout way he drew attention to the major obstacles faced by those who want to reduce obesity rates in the rest of the world: freedom and affluence.
Only Venezuela was missing from his list. Its people lost an average of 19 pounds last year as its basket-case economy unravelled, but this only serves to underline the point. Even the most fanatical nanny statist would hesitate before endorsing grinding poverty as a weight-loss strategy — and yet it is the only thing that seems to work. In the free world, obesity rates are flat or rising, and nowhere are they falling.
This, we are told, means that obesity is an ‘epidemic’, despite the fact that it is neither infectious nor a disease. Obesity rates in Britain have barely risen in a decade. Rhetoric about it being an ‘epidemic’ is designed to make people think that government coercion is appropriate when it is not, and to foster the idea that the private matter of being fat is an issue of ‘public health’.
Paternalists leave no stone unturned in their efforts to make other people’s business their own. Economic research shows that the impact of obesity on government finances is either trivial or cost-saving, but this does not stop campaigners making the ludicrous claim that it will bankrupt the NHS. If the health service ever declares bankruptcy — a virtual impossibility when it is owned by the state — it will be because people are living too long, not dying too soon.
The irony of the crusade against obesity is that while fat people do not place significant costs on others, the policies proposed will adversely affect us all. Non–smokers can afford to watch the increasingly draconian campaign against smoking from the sidelines, but everybody has to eat. The 75 per cent of us who are not obese are liable to feel aggrieved when we are given over-priced soft drinks and cardboard–flavoured food in a doomed attempt to make the other 25 per cent lose weight.
And yet that is what the future holds. A tax on sugary drinks will come into effect from April next year and will doubtless be extended to other products when it inevitably fails to reduce obesity rates. Back in 2015, the sainted Jamie Oliver told MPs that a tax on sugary drinks was the ‘single most important’ anti–obesity policy on the table, but after George Osborne surprised everybody by introducing it, the health lobby took the wise decision of managing expectations.
Today, campaigners cannot mention the tax without adding the caveat that it will not be a ‘silver bullet’. No one doubts that. A silver bullet would reduce obesity rates to zero. All we expect from an effective anti-obesity policy is for it to reduce obesity rates somewhat. Given that the sugar levy is going to relieve us of half a billion pounds a year, increase inflation and fall disproportionately on the poor, a small reduction in obesity is the least we could expect — and yet there is no credible evidence that it will achieve even that.
Campaigners claim that the sugar levy is ‘evidence-based’ because a 10 per cent tax on soft drinks in Mexico was associated with a 6 per cent decline in sales. There is no evidence that this led to a reduction in calorie intake, let alone in obesity, and there is no reason to think that obesity would decline if this ‘success’ was replicated in Britain. It is a pertinent, if under-reported, fact that sugary drink consumption fell by 40 per cent in Britain between 2004 and 2014, while obesity rose. And while it might not sit well with the current drive to blame a single nutrient for all our problems, it is also a fact that per capita sugar consumption is lower today than it was in the 1970s. Perhaps we are looking for solutions in the wrong place?
A misdiagnosis of the problem is bound to lead to a bad prescription. Public Health England is co-ordinating a top-down re-organisation of the food supply that has no precedent anywhere in the world. In an act of almost unbelievable hubris, the quango believes that it can cajole the food industry into removing sugar, salt, fat and calories from their products without people noticing, thereby allowing us to stuff our faces without consequence.
Only after holding meetings with the manufacturers did Public Health England start to realise that this magic food does not exist. The removal of key ingredients leaves a product that nobody will buy, not least in the case of confectionery, cakes and biscuits, for which sugar is integral to taste and texture. Suddenly aware of the enormity of the challenge, Public Health England quietly accepted that reformulation was impractical and encouraged the industry to reduce portion sizes instead. The result was ‘shrinkflation’ which, as the Office for National Statistics noted in a recent review of the phenomenon, has been particularly pronounced in the chocolate sector. Food companies have tried to blame Brexit and the higher price of raw materials for their products getting smaller, but the ONS rejected these explanations. Unfortunately it did not mention the real culprit: the government’s obesity strategy.
Needless to say, the miniaturisation of chocolate bars has not been accompanied by a commensurate reduction in prices. This rip-off will now be extended beyond sugar to affect every part of the food supply. Having set a target of reducing sugar in food by 20 per cent by 2020, Public Health England confirmed last month that it will be setting similar targets for salt, saturated fat and calories for ‘all sectors of the food and drink industry, including the out-of-home sector’.
It remains to be seen how long this ‘health by stealth’ approach survives once shoppers are confronted with its creations. Food reformulation is an idea that sounds better than it tastes. Most people do not want to be fat, but nor do they want the government removing flavour from their food and slapping taxes on their favourite treats. It will take years of destructive meddling for the government to accept that controlling people’s waistlines is beyond its power. It could save a lot of time and money now if it admitted that it is also beyond its remit.
Christopher Snowdon and Prof Graham Mac-Gregor of Action on Sugar on obesity.