Tuesday 8 December 2015

The 2015 Sugar Summit

Every now and then I have the perverse need to see 'public health' zealots in the flesh to confirm that they are as awful I remember them. They are always worse.

Yesterday I went along to the Sugar Summit or, to give it its full name, The Sugar Reduction Summit: Sugar, Sweetness and Obesity. The subtitle is important because the food faddists now take it for granted that the government should use force to remove (literally) half of the sugar from the food supply. The only question for these loons is whether it is okay to replace it with artificial sweeteners or whether sweet tastes per se should be driven out of the human experience.

Quite a few people were on the anti-sweetness side of the argument, a pretty clear sign that this is a moral crusade rather than a health campaign. Perhaps they think that they are sweet enough. If so, they are wrong.

Take Graham MacGregor, the chairman of Action on Sugar née Action on Salt. I have said before that he is the libertarian's best advocate because he is devoid of charm to such an extent that he is able to repel his own supporters. He hams it up a bit—one can imagine him playing Captain Hook in a pantomime—but there is no disguising the fact that he is a genuinely ghastly human being.

In his opening remarks, MacGregor described sugar, fat and salt and 'toxic substances'. He repeated the old canard about over-eating killing more people in Britain than anything else. He repeatedly compared food to tobacco. And he flatly asserted that the food industry is responsible for what people eat.

During questions, an academic from (I think) Maastricht University put it to MacGregor that the food industry only puts products on the market and that people are responsible for what they eat. This mild challenge was enough for MacGregor to blow a fuse. He informed the questioner that he 'has no conscience' and accused him of killing people with the food he was selling, despite the academic having preceded his question with an assurance that he has no relationship with the food industry.

Susan Jebb, a professor of nutrition whom we have encountered before, then said how disappointed she was to hear the distinguished (sic) MacGregor using 'loose words' and 'factual inaccuracies' (ie. lies) when slating the Responsibility Deal of which she was a part. I later saw them yelling at each other over coffee.

The Jebb-MacGregor clash is illustrative of how conferences like this move the Overton window. Jebb is an undoubted nanny statist who wants the government to control what people eat, but she is not quite as extreme as MacGregor. The main difference is that she thinks a lot can be achieved with 'voluntary' agreements whereas MacGregor wants mandatory targets backed up by law. In practice, the difference is trivial since 'voluntary' agreements are usually backed up by the threat of legislation. Nevertheless, the narrow difference between these two positions is where the 'debate' lies at such a conference. It is simply taken for granted that the state should make food significantly less tasty because a minority of people are too thick or lazy to get off the sofa.

The last session I attended featured the people shown below. On the right is Jason Halford, an obesity activist/researcher at the university of Liverpool. He chaired the entire conference and is particularly keen on advertising bans and food taxes. As you can probably see in the photo below, Halford is a fat man. He is almost certainly obese. I would not normally mention this, but when you have someone who wants the government to impose his solutions to obesity on the population it is relevant to note that he cannot impose a solution on himself.

Seated from the right is Ian Wright (Food and Drink Federation), Nick Southgate (a philosopher turned behavioural economist) and Gavin Partington (British Soft Drinks Association). Jack Winkler, one of the less swivel-eyed diet campaigners is obscured by a delegate's head but next to him is the Chief Policy Adviser of Which? magazine and a representative from the British Retail Consortium.

The last two were particularly disappointing. It appears that the British Retail Consortium are actively calling for the government to give them mandatory targets on sugar, fat and salt content. They want the fabled 'level playing field', an anti-competitive chimera that helps industry at the expense of consumers. Now that Big Retail support one of their key policies, will the 'public health' mob stop talking about the 'scream test'?

The British Retail Consortium have their self-interested reasons for attempting appeasement. They know that people will generally have to buy food from one of their members regardless of how degraded it is by government regulation. But what excuse do Which? have? They are supposed to be a consumer organisation protecting the public from being ripped off. They are supposed to believe in quality standards and choice and yet their policy adviser (why do they even have such a thing?) supports sin taxes, advertising bans and mandatory reformulation. A pox on them and a pox on everybody else who wants to tell us what to eat. My blood pressure can't take many more of these events.

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