Sunday, 24 June 2018

"Aren't all these kids supposed to be fat?" Why the Government's child obesity strategy is wrong

Every lunchtime Parkside school opens its gates and disgorges starving pupils onto the streets of our village. Long queues form outside the chip shop and the butcher - wise locals hunker down until these hungry young people are gone. A day or two ago, someone commented to me about these queues - "you know," she said, "aren't these kids all supposed to be fat?"

Indeed, to listen to the fussbuckets we put in charge of our health services and the media who, without even a glance at any actual evidence, publish those folks' nannying proposals, you'd think that near every child was a barely mobile lard-bucket unable to do anything but plonk before a screen. The truth - at least from watching those queues is that you've got to work pretty hard to find a fat child. I'm sure they're there, just as they were there when I was at school. I'm even prepared to believe that, like the population in general, there are more chubby kids than back in the 1970s (when, incidentally, we consumed more sugar than we do today). But it doesn't look like a crisis to me.

All this hasn't stop a host of fussbuckets, urged on by a couple of celebrity chefs with brands to promote and books to sell, from deciding that they know better - either by targeting so-called "junk" food or else by creating a moral panic about the food industry. At the heart of all this is the idea that parents - especially working-class parents - are unable to resist promotions:
"It is near impossible to shield children from exposure to unhealthy foods"
So says Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health. Let's examine this little sentence and extract its meaning. Firstly is creates the idea of an 'unhealthy food' when this is an entirely evidence-free assertion - there are no unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets. Secondly, the statement exploits our innate desire to protect children - "shield" suggests that the child will be damaged by the very act of seeing a chocolate bar, a fizzy drink or a burger. Yet all these things are both pleasurable and healthy, consumed without risk by children and adults most of whom are not obese.

I try to understand why it is that we've created this moralistic stampede about eating? Part of me suspects that it's influenced by upper middle class snobbery about food, typified by David Cameron's old advisors Camilla Cavendish and Claire Foges. But there has to be more - as consumers we look for excuses to explain away what we think are poor choices. The result is the overuse of words like 'addiction' to describe a lack of willpower rather than a pathological condition. Plus, of course, the belief that we wouldn't have bought all that chocolate, eaten all that pizza, stuffed our faces with cake if it hadn't have been for capitalism and its evil minion advertising.

When we see the countline bars lined up by the checkout, we know exactly what the retailer is doing. That shops wants to upsell us, add a little more value to the purchase we're making - essentially free margin. If we succumb, it is not because the retailer has made us buy but because we've made a choice to add that Snickers to our shopping basket. Thousands of other customers successfully ignore the line up of sweet goodies and negotiate their purchase without adding a bag of doughnuts.

This doesn't stop the fussbuckets - "...parents find offers for sugary sweets and snacks at checkouts annoying" says Jeremy Hunt. I beg to differ. If parents really were annoyed then there'd be enough consumer pressure on the retailers to change the practice - that they haven't tells me that parents are only 'annoyed' when some poll asks whether they are annoyed.

The same goes for advertising. It's an easy target. You've heard it said - "if advertising didn't work, they wouldn't spend so much money on it. It's common sense that advertising bans will work." Not only is this a complete misunderstanding of what "works" means for the advertiser but it also raises some profound questions about whether we should ever be justified in banning commercial speech for entirely healthy products. It bears repeating that advertising doesn't act to raise aggregate demand either across the economy as a whole or for individual categories of good (even "addictive" ones like tobacco, beer and sugar).

Advertising works by maintaining or increasing levels of market share - we don't buy bread because of an advert featuring Haworth Main Street to the strains of Dvorak, we might buy Hovis because of that advert. When you see the Rolex advert on the Wimbledon scoreboard, you are reminded of the brand and, when you next buy a wristwatch, might consider that brand. And when Tony the Tiger roars "they're grrreat" in a Frosties advert, he's increasing the chances of you buying Frosties rather than competing products promoted by cartoon monkeys or large yellow monsters. Banning advertising serves no purpose other than to say "look we've done something" and, the more of it we ban, the more we undermine the media that require the advertising to keep afloat.

If there's a child obesity crisis (and I'm completely unconvinced) then we should look at why this is happening rather than lollop about bashing things to make us look popular - sales promotions, advertising, calorie information, cartoon characters. Let's ask some sensible questions instead like:

Why, when average calorie intake in the UK has fallen, are we on average heavier?

What has changed in every day environments that may contribute to this increase in average weight (hint - it's not advertising, checkout promotions, two-for-one offers or cartoon characters as these were all around when we were skinnier)?

What aspects of consumer behaviour have changed over this time - more eating out, grazing not set meals, time-pressured working women?

When we look at the reduction in smoking - in health terms a far more serious issue than a modest increase in obesity - the two factors that seem to be most important are good quality health information (today everybody knows smoking is bad for your health) and price. It seems to me that making food more expensive wouldn't be popular - VAT on food anyone - which is why we have this idea of 'good' and 'bad' foods. The problem is that taxing foods high in fat, sugar and salt either runs the risk of clobbering everything but leaf vegetables and chicken or else leads to substitution (if you can't get your calories from Mr Kipling's cakes, you get them from Mr Warburton's bread).

This leaves us with public information - telling people what a healthy, balanced lifestyle means and allowing them to make choices armed with this knowledge. This worked for smoking, has largely worked for alcohol and could have the same impact on diet. The problem is that a great deal of the anti-obesity campaigns are driven by low carb cranks rather than by seeking a consensus view from dietitians. I suspect, however, that this advice should boil down to: eat regular meals, avoid snacking, have a balanced diet including meat, veg and stodge, don't eat too many sweets. Essentially what our mums told us back in the 1970s.



Sackerson said...

For how many years have governments watched/made councils sell off playing fields?

Richard Joyce said...

Very sensible article - why are most of our Westminster politicians so stupid I wonder? Living in large cities perhaps, poor air, bad water, too much to drink? Certainly no common sense.

Anonymous said...

As a primary school child in the 1940s I ell their products.
The booklet was given to us at school to take home to our parents. Even in those days of rationing there were kids who wremember being given a booklet produced by Cadburys, yes the chocolate Cadburys, which explained the need for a balanced diet. It explained about protein,fat, carbohydrates etc and apart from pictures of the Bournville factory did not try to sere chubbier than the rest, not because they were stuffed with sugar but because that is how they were built.

Anonymous said...

Whats changed is the amount of exercise we get each day. Previously most peoples jobs involved a fair amount of physical exertion and people walked at least part of they way to and from their place of work.