Thursday 2 April 2015

What will the manifestos bring?

FTI Consulting have published a briefing paper about what to expect from the General Election. On page 32 there is a section on 'lifestyle' that is worth reading.

Following the end of the duty “escalator” on beer, the cut in beer duty in the March Budget demonstrated once again that politicians believe lifestyle industries and products capture the electorate’s attention. Albeit nuanced by broader arguments around choice, health and public responsibility, these complex consumer issues will continue to be a feature of debates in the commons long into the next parliament.

The tobacco industry has been rocked by the last-gasp success of the campaign to standardise “plain” packaging, the consequences of which are yet to arise after its implementation. The debate is far from over, especially if the Conservatives form another government: questions about illicit trade and intellectual property remain unanswered and noises about costly and time-consuming lawsuits are rumbling. Tobacco companies have set their sights on other industry challenges too: the evolution of alternative tobacco and nicotine products such as Electronic Vaping product (EVps, commonly known as e-cigarettes) means that “big tobacco” faces continued uncertainty as to what their products will look like and how they can be sold in the near future.

Going into the election, support for the alcohol industry appears sweetened with a 1p reduction in beer duty and duty on cider and spirits such as scotch whisky cut by 2 per cent, “to back one of the UK’s biggest exports”, as Osborne outlined in the last Budget. Whilst currently unsuccessful, the argument for minimum unit pricing has not been permanently defeated, with a report emerging from the house of Lords recommending a trio of paternalistic measures: minimum pricing, a variable tax rate in line with alcoholic strength and new rules on alcohol labelling. These are particularly likely to be pursued in the event of a Labour victory at the polls.

Alcohol faces a local / national pincer movement; the Local Government association has called for the government to divert a fifth of the current total annual duty on alcohol to councils and has requested power for councils to take public health issues into consideration when deliberating licenses, and supporting licensing and trading standards departments to tackle the black market in alcohol.

Authorities like Newcastle and Ipswich are mooting the prospect of local control over late night levies or the strength of alcohol which can be sold in their areas. as with proposals for local control over gambling (the number of bookies in an area, and what’s available within them), such measures can grow, spreading out so that in the end the effect is the same, or similar to, a national ban, without the national debate that would have gone with it.

The government faces pressure to take action against fixed odds betting terminals (FoBTs) in efforts to tackle problem gambling. This is not as simple an argument as it may seem; whilst some argue that too many outlets offering FoBTs on a high street can lead to a degradation of the street appearance and impact on the local economy, the impact of shop-based terminals (with the employment they offer and rates they generate) versus internet gambling as a source of addiction and poverty is more complex. There’s a safety point at play too, since the ability to police the age of gamblers, verify that they’re not drunk, observe and identify problem gamblers and so forth is much easier when the provider of the opportunity to gamble can actually see the punter – which of course doesn’t happen when the gambling’s being done at home. The government has set out that the future of FoBTs is “unresolved”. With the industry being placed under continued scrutiny, it can be expected that the gambling industry’s future faces uncertainty, though the Treasury will be wary of legislation that reduces the income it receives from the already heavily taxed and regulated gambling industry.

Sugar and fat in food and drink are next in the firing line, with a coordinated campaign by health bodies having grown momentum over the course of this parliament. A tax on soft drinks and energy drinks has been debated by public health officials and opposed by industry, but the government has not yet committed to a review or any progress on the issue. The debate should not be dismissed given the focus public health research is placing on diet and sugar intake, and the repeated cycle shown throughout this parliament in all of the tobacco, gambling, alcohol and food and drink debates – that progress for the “nannying” side of the argument is never permanently beaten. seemingly, it’s just delayed.

This briefing covers many of the big issues, but there are others—mandatory food reformulation, outdoor smoking bans, and a multitude of advertising bans, for example. These (state-funded) campaigns will continue regardless of which party is in charge. The shrieking will get louder and the pseudo-academic 'evidence' will get more and more absurd.

Whether they succeed doesn't much depend on the make up of the next parliament either. The last five years have shown that you cannot expect a party with the word 'conservative' or 'liberal' to be either of those things, while Labour's crusade against e-cigarettes at the EU level shows that the socialists are as hostile to free markets and free choice as ever. So long as the public health parasites keep saying 'think of the children!' there will be a gormless or ambitious politician ready to grab a quick headline.

Whatever happens, don't expect to see it in the manifestos before the election. Being unpopular, 'public health' garbage tends not be the kind of thing politicians want to put to a vote. The Tories and Liberals brought in the tobacco display ban despite being opposed to it when Labour were in charge. Plain packaging wasn't in any of the parties' manifestos and Labour's 2005 manifesto explicitly promised that its smoking ban wouldn't include wet pubs and private members' clubs. In fact, the only major 'public health' policy in the 2010 manifestos was minimum pricing in the Liberal Democrats'—and that never happened.

It's almost as if you can't trust them, isn't it?


Christopher Snowdon said...

Well, when the pols are in public meetings while they're pandering for votes, someone ought to always be around to ask them point blank how they stand on there things. At least put them on record (even if they lie.)

Christopher Snowdon said...

What do you mean, 'even if they lie?'