Thursday 12 March 2015

Denying the slippery slope while greasing the slippery slope

Marion Nestle, an American food activist, has written a very badly thought out article for New Scientist which denies the existence of a slippery slope while simultaneously calling for tobacco-style regulation of food and drink.

It's clear from the outset that she's out of her depth...

That plain wrappers will undoubtedly further reduce smoking, especially among young people, is best confirmed by the tobacco industry's vast opposition to this government measure

No. All that tells you is that the industry is worried that people will buy cigarettes with lower profit margins, as even anti-smoking activists like Luk Joosens and Simon Chapman have admitted. perk up its tired and thoroughly discredited campaign, the tobacco folks have added a new argument. Requiring plain wrappers on cigarettes, they say, is a slippery slope: next will be alcohol, sugary drinks and fast food. This argument immediately raises questions. Is it serious or just a red herring? Should the public health community lobby for plain wrappers to promote healthier food choices, or just dismiss it as another tobacco industry scare tactic?

I don't know, Marion. Why don't you ask Michael Jacobson at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who recently said:

“The ‘plain-packaging' concept is certainly appropriate for junk foods, and that’s especially the case for junk foods marketed to children. Snazzy graphics, spokes-characters, misleading health claims and other devices shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the fact that a food or beverage contributes to obesity, tooth decay, heart disease or other health problem.”

Nestle, however, doesn't think plain packaging should be rolled out to food (yet), but only for administrative reasons...

...the problem is deciding which foods and beverages might call for plain wrappers. For anything but soft drinks and confectionery, the decisions look too vexing. Rather than having to deal with such difficulties, health advocates prefer to focus on interventions that are easier to justify – scientifically and politically.

And what might these be?

If not plain packaging, then what? Studies suggest small benefits from a long list of interventions such as taxes, caps on portion size, front-of-package traffic-light labels, nutrition standards for school meals, advertising restrictions, and elimination of toys from fast food meals and cartoons from packaging. Rather than dealing with the impossible politics of plain wrappers on foods, health advocates increasingly favour warning labels.

Ah, you mean warning labels like the warning labels that first appeared on cigarettes? The warning labels that the evil tobacco industry said would end up on other products as a result of the fictitious slippery slope (which is not, by the way, a "new argument")?

You mean the warning labels that anti-smoking campaigners insisted would only be put on cigarettes and that any claim to the contrary were industry spin? Campaigners like Simon Chapman, for example, wrote an article in 2003 which read as follows:

Arguments used to avoid, delay, and dilute health warnings

Within the four strategies outlined above, the industry has used six main arguments to oppose the introduction and strengthening of warnings:
  • tobacco warnings are the start of a “slippery slope”

This, he said, was a risible lie, explaining...

"Slippery slope”

In pre-warning days, when arguments could be couched in incredulity that tobacco should be singled out from other consumer products, the industry used “slippery slope” or “thin edge of the wedge” rhetoric, arguing that the policy would inexorably bleed into other product areas.

“The precedent is one which could easily come to affect other industries. For instance, a number of medical scientists claim that butter and milk are dangerous to the health of some people. It is recognised that drinking too much liquor or reckless driving are hazards to life... can we expect all these products to carry a ‘danger’ label ...?”

This argument appears to have quickly lost momentum when the dire predictions of rampant warnings never materialised.

These are the kind of warnings you want on food, right Marion? The ones that the industry—and not just the industry but many sentient people—said would be introduced once the precedent was set with tobacco?

And you are saying that there is no slippery slope while calling for a policy to be extended from tobacco to other products? You see the problem there, don't you?

She continues:

Although no warning label law has passed so far, such messages are the logical next step in promoting healthy food choices, in the same way that plain wrappers are the next logical step for all cigarette packages. Health advocates should recognise the slippery slope argument for the typical tobacco ploy that it is.

Good grief. The lack of self-awareness is staggering. If plain packaging is the 'next logical step' for tobacco, and tobacco-style warnings are the 'next logical step' for food, it is not difficult to work out what the 'next logical step' for food will be once warnings have been introduced.

How naive do these people think we are?

By the way, the image at the top of this post, like those below, has not be mocked up by industry reps or slippery slope obsessed libertarians. They've been designed by the Ontario Medical Association and they're not kidding.


Christopher Snowdon said...

No doubt our socialist Prime Minister will welcome all future moves to label any products in any way that the public health mob deem appropriate.

Having caved in to evidence free emotional blackmail on tobacco, there is no rational argument he can make to oppose the inevitable calls for soviet style packaging for just about anything on the grounds that "it might save one life"

He has demonstrated that evidence is not a factor where he is concerned. Neither are jobs, small businesses, freedom of expression, honesty or common sense. Public health truly is uber alles under Cameron and all opposition will be crushed beneath state sponsored jack boots.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Plain packaging for junk food? Yes because we always buy products based on the most colouful and snazzy designs. Do these public health folk honestly think people are that simplistic? Same with tobacco, do they think people take up smoking because the boxes look fun and colourful?

We buy junk food because we want to and we enjoy it. If some people can't make good diet choices and eat in moderation why should everyone else be subject to such a ridiculous attempt at preventing consumption?

Haven't heard anything from CSPI in a while, not that it matters seeing as they're not really a valid source of information or advice.

I have a feeling this truely is the start of a slipperly slope. Not sure it will go that far but all these public health organisations will definately start pushing for it.