The Politics of Obesity in Britain, 2010-20

purpose of government is not to do good,” but to “secure the rights of human beings to go about their lives peaceably, knowing that they will not be aggressed against by others.”

eat, drink and be merry” [for tomorrow we die]*

The Conservative Party’s ideological battle against the ‘Nanny State’ is libertarian. In 2016, George Osborne decided to fight Britain’s obesity crisis but knew many Conservative MPs would oppose him. Being an adroit politician, he sidestepped them. His ‘Sugar Tax’ promoted a health objective but he called it a levy and claimed it was to finance primary school sport. Even food labelling is controversial. The easily understood ‘Traffic Light’ system is a contested area, thereby hampering informed decision making. Libertarian Conservatives say they’re preventing the infantalisation of the British adult population. The politics of obesity is allegedly about freedom.

In his 2016 Budget speech Osborne said, “You cannot have a long term plan for the country unless you have a long term plan for our children’s healthcare. Here are the facts we know…..Obesity drives disease.” He went on to say, “So today I can announce that we will introduce a new sugar levy on the soft drinks industry.”** Osborne’s ‘levy’ defused its ideological content. The toxic Sugar Tax facilitating a ‘Nannying’ policy was evaded and his policy passed unscathed.

The ‘levy’ was expected to raise £520m** in a full year. “This will be used to double the primary PE and sport premium (the additional money schools have to spend on PE and sports) to £320 million a year.”*** There’s a massive disparity between Osborne’s figure in the speech and the summary document. Worse: none of the levy was ear marked, so it was untraceable after entering the Treasury. It could be that the levy was actually a cynical stealth tax.

Four years later Prime Minister Boris Johnson became seriously ill with Covid-19. Like other obese middle-aged men, he had a severe experience.**** He left hospital vowing to do something about Britain’s obesity crisis. Unlike other significant social and health problems, there are solutions readily available. None are controversial in the scientific world but are in Johnson’s Conservative party.

Food labelling which is clear and informative should be uncontroversial. Manufactures must label the ingredients but some prefer the less easily understood list system.

A manufacturers list of ingredients for Chicken soup

The ‘Traffic Light’ system is clear as can be identifying foods which are unhealthy if over consumed without significant physical exercise.

Red indicates a health warning

The ‘Traffic Light’ system is unequivocal and vivid but libertarians see it as the thin end of the wedge. Consumers’ choice is being guided by the government instead of people just eating what they find tasty. Consumer preferences are being ‘nudged’ towards a certain diet and therefore people are being manipulated.

The politics of obesity is odd. Meaningful interventions are vetoed regardless of irrefutable evidence that obesity causes harm. Intervention in other high risk areas of life are uncontroversial*****. Johnson’s near death experience led him to the bizarre belief that exhortation is the best remedy. Exhortation has repeatedly failed in his personal experience. So what’s going on? It could be right-wing Conservatives and business interests hold him in thrall. This is the shameful triumph of ideological posturing and business interests taking precedence over the well-being of the British people.

Notes

* https://www.americanexperiment.org/article/tabacco/ The second quote is from Luke 12:19. The phrase in brackets is normally added but isn’t actually Biblical.

** https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/budget-2016-george-osbornes-speech
*** https://www.gov.uk/government/news/budget-2016-some-of-the-things-weve-announced For Tory opposition see https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/12134748/boris-axe-sugar-tax-obesity-battle/

**** His weight is reported as being 17st 7lbs; 245 lbs; 111kgs

***** seat belts spring; helmets for motor-cyclists; food safety regulation spring to mind

 

Sources

For the full text of Osborne’s speech see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/budget-2016-george-osbornes-speech

For Johnson’s hospitalisation see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/apr/12/boris-johnson-leaves-hospital-as-he-continues-recovery-from-coronavirus

For the Sun newspapers anti-Nanny State campaign see https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/12134748/boris-axe-sugar-tax-obesity-battle/

For NHS weight chart see https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/height-weight-chart/

For average weight of an Indian man see https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-average-weight-of-an-Indian-man#:~:text=Average%20weight%20of%20indian%20man%20is%2060%20kg.,of%20National%20Institute%20of%20Nutrition%20%28NIN%29%20weightloss%20fast.

For Britain’s obesity see https://www.healthexpress.co.uk/obesity/uk-statistics

For an outraged doctor’s response to the Nanny State see https://www.bmj.com/content/365/bmj.l2164/rr-0

For the ‘Traffic Light’ system of food labelling see https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2014/11/03/UK-traffic-light-label-should-be-mandatory-MEP-tells-commission

For the food labelling controversy see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-44533752

For the nudge theory see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge_theory

This entry was posted in Economics, Health, Politics, statistics, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Politics of Obesity in Britain, 2010-20

  1. Amazing blog post. Despite what government will do, everything gonna depend on people. Even if snack size will be reduced, people still can buy two packs of snack…

    • odeboyz says:

      Thank you for you r comment.

      I totally agree with you that people have to take responsibility but there should be informed choice. After all no one is any doubt about the impact of heroin but they don’t know about the quantities of sugar and salt in their food, which are (cumulatively) harmful. Informed decision making is the theme of the blog after that do as you see fit.

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