Sunday, 15 April 2018

Camilla Cavendish: authoritarian idiot

I have always assumed that David Cameron's weird penchant for nanny state regulation was the result of upper-middle class Tory paternalism. With the tobacco display ban, sugar tax and plain packaging, he outnannied Tony Blair.

But I am increasingly minded to believe that he endorsed so many patronising 'public health' gimmicks because he was being advised by ignorant, authoritarian fools. Articles like this from his former adviser Clare Foges support this view, as does this astonishing piece by Camilla Cavendish in the Financial Times...

How to take on ‘Big Sugar’ and win

Straight away we have the David and Goliath delusion of 'public health' lobbyists, as if the soft drinks industry was ever a threat to government.

In trying to ward off obesity, we are fighting our addiction to sugar. And we are up against an industry that risks rapidly becoming the 21st-century equivalent of Big Tobacco. I hope that doesn’t sound hysterical.

It does and it is.

Back in 2015, when I worked in Number 10 Downing Street, there was a mortifying moment when I was called a “health fascist” by one of David Cameron’s other advisers. We had just come out of the prime minister’s office, where I had been arguing that we should tax fizzy drinks. I was taken aback to hear myself described as fascist. I’d been against the smoking ban, I’d campaigned to legalise drugs, and I loathe the nanny state.

What, you might wonder, turned this supposed libertarian into the howling crank we now see before us?

The trouble was, I had come up against the horror of the obesity epidemic. As a mother, I’d experienced the full force of pester power.

Of course. Parenthood. The state must act to prevent children nagging their parents. God forbid that children might have to be told 'no' once in a while.

In Britain, one in 10 children are already obese when they arrive at primary school at the age of five. That doubles to one in five when they leave primary school, aged 10 or 11.

As I explained at length here and here, the childhood obesity figures are based on a definition of obesity that has no credibility and is never used by clinicians. As a result, the statistics are vastly inflated. I doubt there is a school in the country where you would identify one in five children as being obese. 'As a mother', Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice should have noticed this at the school gates.

Consumers are understandably confused. For decades, we were warned off saturated fat. A profitable industry grew up selling “low-fat” processed foods. But these are a con. To make them tasty, manufacturers stuff them with carbohydrates and sugar. These create spikes in blood sugar levels, which lead to addictive cravings when blood sugar falls. The health consequences are dire: insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. 

It seems that Cavendish has fallen in with the LCHF (low carb, high fat) crowd who have been gleefully retweeting the FT article. Were the initial warnings about saturated fat overblown? Almost certainly. Did sugar replace fat in reduced-fat products? In some instances, yes. Nevertheless, Britons are consuming significantly less sugar than we did in the 1980s, a fact that Cavendish chooses to ignore (or is unaware of).

Big Food offering low-fat cakes is the equivalent of Big Tobacco offering low-tar cigarettes. They make us feel better about ourselves, while keeping us hooked.

This is second of several references to Big Tobacco from a woman who doesn't wish to be viewed as 'hysterical'. Leaving aside the obvious differences between a cake and a cigarette, a low fat cake would be better for you (in terms of weight gain) if it had fewer calories. It might not taste very nice but you'd better get used to it because it is the explicit policy of Public Health England to reduce fat, sugar and calories from nearly everything by twenty per cent over the next few years, including cakes.

The tragedy is that some scientists have known about the pernicious effects of sugar for 40 years. In 1972, when health experts were wondering how to explain an explosion in heart disease, the leading British nutritionist John Yudkin...

Blah, blah, blah. This is the standard LCHF rewriting of history in which sugar-hating Yudkin was a genius and he was silenced by Big Carb.

Industry successfully — and deliberately, according to documents recently unearthed at the University of California — shifted the blame to fat.

The documents were 'unearthed' by our old friend Stanton Glantz who, on the basis that you can't libel scientists if they're dead, used them to create an absurd conspiracy theory that has since been comprehensively debunked in this Science article (which I wrote about here).

What we now know is that sugar is as addictive as cigarettes. The American paediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig has argued...

Yes, I thought Robert Lustig would get a mention. Whose fringe view will be cited next? Malhotra's? DiNicolantonio's? Suffice to say, most scientists do not think that sugar is addictive and I do not consider Lustig, a purveyor of junk science who denies that breast milk is sweet and who claims that pasta was invented in America, to be a reliable source of information.

I read Lustig while I was working as a leader writer and columnist at The Times. Battling exhaustion after my third child, and sitting opposite a dear friend who practically mainlined Coca-Cola, I fell into the habit of needing a Coke and chocolate bar before every deadline. Since I was filing copy every day, my consumption of sugar was considerable. And pretty soon the chocolate bar was no longer a single small, elegant Green & Black’s, but a string of Yorkie bars.

This cannot help but bring to mind Alan Partridge's Toblerone habit ("I would wake up in the middle of the night and eat an entire Toblerone. And I don't mean a small one, I mean a medium-sized one"). The writers of I'm Alan Partridge picked chocolate 'addiction' because it is the lamest equivalent of a drug or alcohol habit imaginable; because it is not really an addiction and its consequences are trivial.

This kind of “mindless eating” has been brought to life, hilariously and poignantly, in experiments by Brian Wansink of Cornell University... Wansink opened my eyes to just how much we humans are influenced by our peers, and by portion size.

Two things should you know about Wansink. Firstly, he opposes the kind of nanny state interventions that Cavendish supports because he acknowledges that they are unlikely to produce benefits and are certain to incur costs. Secondly, he is at the centre of the replication crisis in the social sciences after academics spotted numerous irregularities in his studies. He is not the best person to be citing at the moment.

I wanted us to target what worked, not launch an all-out assault on lifestyles. And so did Cameron, my boss. He was instinctively wary of the nanny state. He did, however, regret not having introduced minimum alcohol pricing...

Not that wary, then. Why can't these people acknowledge what they are?

We looked at Mexico, where a sugar tax substantially reduced fizzy drinks purchases by the poorest. 

No it didn't.

We sat down with Jamie Oliver...

Of course you did.

 ...the celebrity chef and health campaigner, who presented the prime minister with a framed graph showing how poor children fare worst from the onslaught of junk food. That graph sat by the prime minister’s desk for months. And it was that argument — that obesity hurts the poor, and that sugar drives obesity — that convinced him about the sugar tax.

I've never heard of such a graph and am doubtful that the data exists to create one. Since it has had such a profound effect on public policy, shouldn't it be made public so that we can judge its veracity?

The tax could never be enough on its own. But we did hope it would reduce purchasing — especially by the teenagers who were getting, unbelievably, a third of their daily calories from fizzy drinks.

You what?! 11-18 year olds get less than five per cent of their calories from soft drinks (including fruit juice). It's scary that somebody who was at the heart of government lobbying for anti-sugar policies is so oblivious to the basic facts.

To be fair to Big Food, many companies argue that they are simply selling what people like.

'Big Food' is correct. Leave us alone.

My problem is that they don’t deal with the reality of a public health crisis brought on by our inability to resist junk, described so eloquently by Lustig and Wansink.

If I may say so, Camilla, your problem is that you've learned everything you know about nutrition from the fringes of pop science. Try speaking to a dietitian or biologist who doesn't have a book to sell.

The sugar tax shows, however, that regulation needn’t be disastrous if it’s universal. It has also showed that it’s possible for companies to change their ingredients quickly.

Consumers hate the newly reformulated Irn-Bru, Lucozade and Ribena. Lucozade lost £25 million after they created Victory Lucozade.

Reformulating food is much more complicated, for the obvious reason that processed foods contain far more ingredients than drinks (and if you remove all sugar from a cake, it will simply collapse and look like a soufflé). 

It's not just 'more complicated'. It is impossible in most cases, which is why Public Health England has largely given up the fantasy of reformulation and told companies to simply make their products smaller.

But if we humans are terrible at digesting health advice, it would be far better if responsible companies could remove temptation from us at source, rather than try and convince millions of us to change.

Millions of us do not need to change and millions more don't want to change. The fact that you used to eat too many Yorkie bars is not our problem.

There is already a model. In the 2000s, a UK government-business partnership reduced salt in many processed foods by 15 per cent. The same could be done for sugar.

The government has been doing this since 2015. Do try and keep up. 

What would I do next? I believe we need to start treating sugar like nicotine. 

Is this, by any chance, the slippery slope of regulation that the anti-smokers assured us was a figment of libertarian imaginations?

That means putting a health warning on the packet, not complex labels in small print that few of us can make sense of when we’re rushing down a supermarket aisle.

As some wag on Twitter pointed out, Yorkie bars are explicitly marketed as being 'not for girls' but that warning didn't deter Cavendish.

I’d like to see a clear, unequivocal health warning on processed food and drink in a universal language: one that Jamie Oliver suggested to me while demonstrating vividly with a can of Coke and a bowl of sugar. You simply show consumers the number of teaspoons of sugar each product contains.

A stupid idea from a stupid individual that would divert attention from the most important piece of information: the calorie count.

Governments have a moral and financial responsibility to tackle obesity.

They do not. They have a moral responsibility to allow people to live as they like so long as they do not harm others. Fat people may not be aesthetically appealing but they do not harm others. It makes essentially no difference to me whether the obesity rate is 20, 30 or 40 per cent. By contrast, sin taxes, bans and reformulations have a significantly detrimental effect on me.

I don't want my life to be regulated by experts and I certainly don't want it to be regulated by gullible ex-journalists and Jamie fricking Oliver. The fact that people like Camilla Cavendish can have such a strong influence on government policy is a perfect argument for small government.

So although it may be slower than I would like, I do think the reckoning is coming for Big Food. 

Big Food will be fine. They're doing nicely out of Public Health England's shrinkflation scam. It's ordinary consumers who need to be worried.

Aren't you glad that we have the Conservatives in power instead of those bossy socialists?

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