Thursday 29 May 2014

Oh, sugar

Simon Capewell, a health demagogue who says that "sugar is the new tobacco" and thinks that people should eat ten vegetables a day, has written an opinion piece for the BMJ. Capewell is a member of the newly formed Action on Sugar (formerly Action on Salt), a pressure group that obviously models itself on Action on Smoking and Health and has exactly the same policies. Like the anti-smokers, they are starting with health warnings and sin taxes...

Sugar sweetened drinks should carry obesity warnings

Should they, by George. Why?

Many other potentially harmful products already carry effective health warnings. For example, insecticides and other toxic products have long carried labels warning users to take extreme care.

Insecticides are toxic products that should not be eaten. Sugar is a naturally occurring, non-toxic food that is intrinsic to fruit and vegetables. See the difference? Capewell doesn't.

Similarly, cigarettes have gone from being socially acceptable to quite unacceptable after warning labels were implemented. 

Firstly, smoking is only 'socially unacceptable' in medical circles and amongst sections of the ruling class. Amongst normal people, smoking remains common and unexceptional. Amongst some groups, it is almost compulsory.

Secondly, policy should not be aimed at making sugar 'socially unacceptable'.

The effectiveness of tobacco warnings and plain packaging is now accepted by almost everyone not linked to the industry. 

I'm not sure how plain packaging slipped into this article, but there is no evidence of its effectiveness and growing evidence of its ineffectiveness. Surveys show that millions of people are opposed to plain packaging and hundreds of thousands registered their opposition in the public consultation. It seems unlikely that all these people are 'linked to the tobacco industry'.

These successes in tobacco control highlight the importance of targeting the “three As”—affordability, availability, and acceptability. Warning labels clearly target acceptability.

Warnings are supposed to target ignorance. The purpose of a warning label is to provide accurate information. Its purpose is not, in itself, to deter purchase, but to inform. Graphic warnings arguably target acceptability, and that is why they are not warnings in any meaningful sense (hence they have been blocked by a judge in the US.)

Doubtless the kind of warnings that Capewell would put on sugary products would have no informational value and would be designed only to deter purchase, but that is because he is a zealot who can't tell the difference between insecticide and chocolate.

Sugar is being progressively demonised: in the UK, a recent Populus public opinion poll commissioned by the BBC found that about 60% of 1000 adults would support health warnings on food packaging similar to those on cigarette packets.

It's being demonised by Action on Sugar, a say-anything, do-anything pressure group that has gained favour with the tabloid press, but which is heading for an embarrassing implosion if it continues to thumb its nose at science. If 60% of Britons have fallen for their nonsense, that is unfortunate but hardly decisive.

The global obesity epidemic already affects more than two billion adults and children. In the UK one third of children and two thirds of adults are now overweight or obese.

Note how Capewell does the old bait and switch by conflating obesity with overweight. It is a common trick amongst these people. The obesity 'epidemic' does not affect two billion people. The majority of those people are overweight, not obese, and the health implications of being overweight are trivial.

In Europe the food and beverage industry recently spent more than €1bn (£813m; $1.37bn) in vociferous attempts to delay, dilute, and demolish food labelling. The industry would not do this unless its future profits were threatened (what the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health calls the “squeal factor”).

Actually, they call it the "scream test" and food is already labelled. What they object to is the ridiculous and arbitrary traffic light system of labelling which will simplistically mark some foods and good and some as evil without any regard to the overall diet. And that is exactly what warnings on sugary products would do, implying that low sugar/high calorie products are somehow healthier.

We might expect the industry to oppose warning labels on sugary drinks with a barrage of opposing arguments, reminiscent of previous opposition to standardised tobacco packaging.

Is this an article about sugar or about plain packaging? Is there some rule that says 'public health' activists must mention plain packaging in all contexts?

Warning labels for refined sugars hidden in sweetened drinks and processed foods represent an interesting natural experiment.

Experiment in the laboratory, Capewell. The world is not your toy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the US we've already had graphic ad campaigns (posters, print, tv) linking heart disease and amputated limbs to soft drinks.