Bring on the nanny state?

A free-market think-tank has condemned government intervention in people’s lifestyles – but if it has cut smoking and drinking, perhaps obesity should be the next target. By David Burrows.

The “nanny state index” published in May shows “the best and worst places to eat, drink and smoke” in Europe. Countries are marked out of 100 in three areas – food, alcohol and smoking – and the higher the score, the “less free” the state is.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, the free-market think-tank behind the report, said it paints a bleak picture of state interference. “Too many politicians seem to think that treating their citizens like children is a matter of national pride,” barked Christopher Snowdon, the IEA’s head of lifestyle economics.

On the flipside, it could be argued that the interventionist approach is working – at least in tobacco and alcohol.

The UK scores 91 and 48.6 respectively out of 100 thanks to some “particularly punitive” sin taxes. Britain was also the first country to mandate graphic warnings on cigarette packaging. And in young people, as the Conservative Party noted in its manifesto also out in May, smoking rates are now lower than France or Germany and drinking rates have fallen below the European average.

It’s not scientific proof that regulation works, but now consider the picture in food. The UK musters just 10 out of 100, with nine of those points coming from the industry-led scheme aimed at restricting advertising of junk foods to children. Next year’s tax on sugary drinks will add a few more points but largely Brits are free to eat as they please, with industry happy to come along for the ride.

It’s a similar picture across Europe: only Hungary manages more than 11 out of 100 points. Some countries have taxes on soft drinks and sugary foods, while others have banned sales of energy drinks to children. But the emphasis is on self- or no regulation.

And yet childhood obesity continues to rise. One in three adolescents in Europe are overweight or obese, according to research published in May by the World Health Organization. It’s time for “ambitious policy action”, the health experts said.

So could a bout of coercive paternalism stem the growth of obesity? A tax on sugary foods to combine with the one on drinks, perhaps? How about mandatory reformulation targets and a watershed for advertising junk food on TV?

No way, industry will say. Food manufacturers have already called on the next government to ditch any thoughts of more nutrient taxes and claimed that the voluntary sugar reduction targets of 20% by 2020 aren’t technically feasible.

Foodservice businesses, meanwhile, seem more than happy with a childhood obesity plan that critics have argued isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Campaigners at Action on Sugar have just called for the tax on sugary drinks to be extended to confectionery, including that sold in coffee shops.

“We need tough measures to ensure compliance and put public health first before the profits of the food industry,” said the Action on Sugar chair, Graham MacGregor. “The levy should be structured by HM Treasury as per the soft drinks industry levy, whereby it is aimed at manufacturers to encourage them to reduce sugar in their overall product ranges,” he added.

The current – and if the polls are to be believed at the time of writing, future – prime minister’s childhood obesity strategy includes a tax on sugary drinks but few of the other hardline interventions that Theresa May’s predecessor had (eventually) been convinced of.

“It took ages to convince [David Cameron] on this kind of stuff,” one source told Footprint. “It’s very personal, but he got comfortable with the idea that it was time to intervene.”

Regulatory intervention is not an approach that often sits well with conservatism. And yet the 2017 manifesto contains suggestions that her government’s attitude to such approaches won’t be as prickly as times gone by. It says: “We will promote efforts to reduce unhealthy ingredients and provide clearer food information for consumers, as our decision to leave the European Union will give us greater flexibility over the presentation of information on packaged food.”

The UK has already set the bar in Europe with its traffic-light colour coded labels. These are again voluntary but studies have shown they are helping (some) consumers make (some) healthier choices.

A new mandatory scheme after Brexit would be a big deal, and nutritional labelling certainly appears to be one of the prime minister’s pet projects. But this is part of the problem: politicians too often become sidetracked by single policies rather than a package of robust measures.

McKinsey’s economic analysis of obesity in 2014 suggested that 44 interventions – from portion control to advertising restrictions – would return one in five obese or overweight Brits to their normal weight.

“You can’t just pull one or two policy levers, you need to pull 50, but that’s much harder than saying ‘I’m going to introduce a sugar tax’,” noted the report’s lead author, Richards Dobbs, in an interview with EUobserver.

Dobbs believes that governments across Europe just haven’t yet geared up to tackle the “massive economic burden” of obesity. “There’s a real gap in political leadership … and I don’t think [politicians and policymakers] are as worried about [obesity] as they should be,” he said.

The 2017 nanny state index certainly suggests that governments are reluctant to regulate when it comes to people’s diets: 11 member states score zero. Many of them are in eastern Europe, where obesity levels have historically been low. Not any more: the WHO’s recent report highlighted rising rates in the region as a “particular concern”.

The WHO’s regional director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab, said: “Ambitious policy action is required to reach the Sustainable Development Goal to halt the increase in childhood obesity.Governments must target efforts and break this harmful cycle from childhood into adolescence and beyond.”

One recent opportunity presented itself via a review of the Audio-visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). It’s an extremely complicated package of laws covering television advertising and shopping, sponsorship and product placement (but it’s also one that’s likely to be finalised before the UK’s departure from the European Union).

Campaigners believe it is a “once in a decade” chance to protect children and limit their exposure to marketing of food and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar. It isn’t turning out that way.

The original proposals put forward by the European Commission were far from perfect, but least there was reference to use of the WHO’s nutrient profiles,which are much stricter than the ones used in the EU Pledge signed by many of Europe’s biggest food and drink companies.

The rules should also encompass “programmes with a significant children’s audience”, which is very different from “children’s programmes”. There has been heated debate on this point in the UK, where the concept of 9pm watersheds on junk food advertising is gaining popularity in political circles given the numbers of children watching prime-time shows such as The X Factor.

However, the European Parliament’s committee on culture and education watered much of this down in its agreed text published in May. Campaigners fear the battle is almost lost, with the directive now full of loopholes and loose wording.

As before, the emphasis will also be on self-regulation and industry codes of conduct. In the UK these are more robust than in many other member states but it’s becoming harder for industry to argue that they are working.

Some companies are breaking ranks with industry bodies to call for more regulation rather than less. Writing in The Grocer recently, the Nestlé UK chair and CEO, Dame Fiona Kendrick, said the obesity plan is “the start of the conversation. I believe we should look ahead and start to explore further the potential role of regulation in future health policy.”

She isn’t alone. A couple of weeks ago, Coca-Cola, Unilever, PepsiCo and Danone joined Nestlé and health campaigners to call on the European Commission to adopt EU-wide nutrient profiles for nutrition and health claims “without delay”. Consumers risk being misled and businesses are unable to invest and innovate, they said.

The nanny state index shows countries across Europe have been slow to introduce regulation to encourage healthier eating. Sugar taxes and fancy new labels have distracted some, while others – including the UK – have come close to comprehensive strategies only to back away. Will it be left up to industry to step forward?

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