Friday, 24 July 2020

Boris Johnson - is new boss same as the old boss?

Rumours abound that Boris Johnson will be making an announcement about the government's obesity strategy on Monday and that it's going to be a case of 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss'.

I tried to take a positive view of things in this article for the Spectator...

Despite my libertarian disposition, I take a perverse satisfaction in some of this. The television companies that spent years hyping the childhood obesity ‘epidemic’ and demanding tough action from government are now set to lose £200 million a year in advertising fees. Channel 4 might finally reflect on the wisdom of employing Jamie Oliver to make one-sided agitprop.

Similarly, the food industry might finally realise that the 'public health' lobby is serious in its rhetoric about ‘Big Food’ being the new Big Tobacco. Food companies went along with Public Health England’s ludicrous reformulation scheme because of the thinly veiled threat of more draconian laws if they didn’t comply. Now that the government is going to pass the laws anyway, they might awake from their slumber and stand up for themselves. Anti-smoking legislation started with a ban on television commercials before 9 p.m. – they must see which way the wind is blowing.

There is also a strange comfort in being able to abandon hope in Boris Johnson so soon into his premiership. It saves time in the long run. To be honest, his libertarianism was already in doubt when he put us all under house arrest for three months but, to be fair, that was under exceptional circumstances. However, if a Conservative government with an 80 seat majority, a liberal leader and an anti-establishment chief advisor is going to impose the kind of purse-lipped, micro-managing, finger-wagging, lemon-sucking, nanny-knows-best, censorious, anti-business, killjoy policies that even Gordon Brown never seriously entertained, then we have to conclude that nothing short of revolution is going to put the paternalistic political class out of its stride. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, Public Health England always gets in.

No paywall. read it all.

I've also written about it for the Telegraph. In this article, I argue that an advertising ban will set a runaway train of prohibitions in motion, just as it did with tobacco.

The advertising ban won’t work. How do we know? Partly because the economic evidence consistently shows that advertising affects brand preference, not aggregate demand. In other words, a Colgate advert might make people buy more Colgate toothpaste, but it doesn’t make them buy more toothpaste.

But we also have real world evidence from Britain showing that it doesn’t work. In 2008, the Labour government banned HFSS adverts during programmes which had a large proportion of viewers under 16 years old. This, along with the fact that children watch less live television than they used to, led to children’s "exposure" to HFSS ads falling by 70 per cent. The rate of childhood obesity, however, remained the same. 

Paradoxically, the failure of such policies makes further restrictions inevitable. When the watershed ban fails to reduce obesity, there will be demands for a total advertising ban. Practitioners of "public health", unlike practitioners of medicine, can get away with carrying out useless and harmful interventions ad infinitum.

It is time to demand results. When Johnson announces the latest set of bans next week, he should tell us how much rates of obesity are going to fall by and over what period of time. There should be a sunset clause. If the anti-obesity policies haven’t reduced obesity after, say, five years, they should be repealed. This is a modest request to ask of policies that claim to be evidence-based, but it will never happen because everybody involved knows, deep down, that they are nothing of the sort.

It's behind a paywall (I think), but read it if you can.

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