Thursday 26 April 2018

The deranged war on food

The obesity panic is reaching fever pitch this week as the result of a carefully planned, three-pronged attack consisting of Jamie Oliver's #adenough campaign, the BBC's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall polemic and a (still unpublished) list of demands sent by opposition politicians to Theresa May.

The Times has published an incredible editorial supporting virtually any idea the zealots come up with, sight unseen. When it comes to the invisible childhood obesity 'epidemic', the newspaper is a full on Corbynista...

Ardent free marketeers will say the government has no business inserting itself into the process of setting prices.

I'm not sure how 'ardent' you have to be to oppose price-setting by government. Even the USSR and Cuba worked out that it was a bad idea eventually.

In a nutshell, this argument states that how businesses sell goods and at what price are for them and the market to determine, while what individuals buy is up to them. These are good guiding principles and in an ideal world they might be sacrosanct, but Mrs May operates in the real one.

Are you kidding me? The idea that it is up to individuals to decide what they buy is some sort of lofty, pie-in-the-sky idea that only works in theory?!

In the very next paragraph, The Times tells us what the 'real world' looks like...

This is a world in which Britain’s population is the most obese in western Europe; in which a third of primary school children are overweight by the time they leave; and in which millennials are on course to be the most overweight generation in the country’s history.

This is garbage. The measure used by the government to define overweight and obesity in children is utterly worthless. It is unlikely that there is a single primary (or secondary) school in Britain where you would find a third of children overweight. When we start measuring obesity in a halfway credible manner in adulthood, obesity rates plummet. The true rate of child obesity is unknown, but if we measured it as clinicians do, I doubt it would be above five per cent.

As for millennials being 'on course to be the most overweight generation in the country’s history', this is based on a press release from a pressure group. It is the latest in a long line of predictions that will likely prove to be false. I have offered to put money on it being wrong but, as usual, no one has taken me up on it.

The reality is that the proportion of overweight people in any age group has not risen this century. Here's what the graph would have to look like for the prediction to come true.

Lies are being used to convince us that freedom has failed and the state must take charge. As Mencken said:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

The nearest thing to the truth in The Times leader is the claim that Britain has the highest obesity rate in western Europe. In fact, Malta has a higher rate and if we look beyond the two dozen countries in western Europe and make a global comparison, Britain is not even in the top 30.

So there are quite a lot of fat people in Britain, relatively speaking. This is the 'crisis' that supposedly means that governments should decide 'how businesses sell goods and at what price' and Public Health England should decide 'what individuals buy'. That's all it takes? Seriously? Some people being fat?

The Times seems to give no thought as to whether its wish list of illiberal policies will do anything to reduce obesity rates, nor does it consider what the costs will be. 'Do something,' it cries, 'anything!'

But there are costs. Major costs. Let's take the proposed ban on buy-one-get-one-free offers. Discounting is an important part of any business and it is particularly important when you're dealing with perishable goods. BOGOF deals work for the consumer and the retailer. The retailer gets to clear stock more quickly while the consumer gets a better price. It also works for manufacturers because it gives them a way to get consumers to try new products (grocery shoppers are creatures of habit and the vast majority of new products fail).

There is a trade-off at work. Consumers are offered a lower price but have to store more things in their cupboards and freezers. Many of us, me included, consider this to be a fair deal. If the government gets rid of price promotions, consumers will end up paying more and retailers will find it more difficult to shift unwanted stock. This would mean more perishable goods being wasted and the cost of living going up for consumers. It is a terrible policy.

Imbeciles such as Jamie Oliver assume that people don’t store food and that if they buy two-for-one they will eat them both straight away and get fat. Ergo, if price discounting is banned, people will buy less food and not be fat. I know of no evidence for this, but I do know that there was no decline in sales when Scotland banned BOGOFs for alcohol a few years ago.

At the very least, banning BOGOFs will make shops less efficient and raise costs for consumers. Incredibly, Alison Tedstone of Public Health England says that banning BOGOFs will save shoppers money.

“You would have to be super-human to resist some promotions. They appear to offer great value but they’re actually designed to make us spend more on foods we simply don’t need. Restricting promotions would help to tackle excess calories and reduce obesity, while saving us money over time."

It's hard to know where to begin with some a stupid statement. It is terrifying that food policy is now in the hands of people who have the economic literacy of a pigeon. 

The scariest thing is that these people simply don't care whether the policy works or not. They give no thought to the costs (or, in the case of Tedstone, pretend that the cost is a benefit). They are happy to try anything to disrupt the market in the hope of affecting a single variable - and damn every other consequence. If it works, great, but if it doesn't, who cares? At least they tried.

I doubt that there is any economic lever - short of rationing - the government could pull to reduce obesity rates, but even if they found a way of reducing the rate from the current 26 per cent to, say, 24 per cent, do you think that would be enough for them? Would 20 per cent? 15 per cent? Of course not. We are now set on a path of government intervention into one of the most personal parts of our lifestyles that will go on forever unless we stand up for ourselves.

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