Don’t believe the outrage. Anti-sugar activists have scored a colossal triumph

In any negotiation, one side will go in with extreme demands hoping for a compromise solution that gives them what they really want. They know that their demands are unrealistic. Everyone can see that their demands are unrealistic. But the more they shift the Overton window, the more likely they are to achieve their true objectives.

It is a tactic that has worked phenomenally well for Action on Sugar and their fellow travellers in recent years while the government has been drawing up its childhood obesity strategy. From a standing start they have convinced half the country that a single ingredient is the cause of Britain’s obesity ‘epidemic’ and that a single product category containing that ingredient — the humble fizzy drink — is ‘the new tobacco’.

Never mind that we are consuming less sugar than we did in the 1970s when obesity rates were negligible. Never mind, too, that sugary drink sales have plummeted in the past decade. A narrative of cretinous simplicity has emerged to explain a profoundly complicated social phenomenon and, as luck would have it, the solutions are comfortingly familiar to ‘public health’ lobbyists: tax, ban, repeat.

It is a little-known fact that Action on Sugar is literally the same organisation as Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH). Same charity number. Same personnel. Same logo. Same website. CASH’s big idea was salt reduction. They encouraged the government to work with the food industry to reduce the salt content of some foods. Since minor reductions in salt are little noticed by consumers they were quite successful in this. The combination of reformulation and increased public awareness led to salt consumption falling by 15 per cent in the space of a decade.

When CASH morphed into Action on Sugar, their plan was to bring about sugar reduction. This was a more difficult proposition since sugar is integral to sweet foods and many people dislike the taste of artificial sweeteners. Nevertheless, in the spirit of extreme negotiating demands, they demanded a ludicrously unrealistic 50 per cent reduction in sugar consumption in the space of just five years and a 20 per cent reduction in fat consumption for good measure.

With David Cameron addicted to the same meddling paternalism as Blair and Brown, Action on Sugar threw in some more demands. A tax on fizzy drinks! A ban on cheese advertisements before 9pm! A ban on supermarket discounts!

Surely even the intensive care contingent of the anti-sugar movement never believed that these goals were attainable. And yet George Osborne, faced with another set of missed economic targets, stood up at the despatch box on Budget day and announced the Great Sugar Levy Distraction. Jamie Oliver was visibly shocked. No one seriously believed that a Conservative government would introduce a nanny state tax on soft drinks and yet there it was in black and white.

Faced with this unexpected victory, ‘public health’ campaigners rushed to play down expectations. A sugar tax was ‘no silver bullet’, they said. This is how they always describe policies that have no chance of working. What they were really saying is ‘this is going to suck half a billion pounds out of the pockets of taxpayers every year without making a blind bit of difference to obesity’.

Ineffective and regressive policies are their stock in trade, but now it was the health lobby, not the chancellor, who needed an eye-catching gimmick to distract the public from the lemon they were being sold. With the obesity strategy due any day, could they roll a double six again? Would the government capitulate to one of their other fruity demands? A ban on 2-for-1 deals, perhaps? Or an advertising ban?

The obesity strategy was published today and the answer is no. Theresa May is not going to introduce Soviet-style regulation of the food supply. Instead, she is actually going to do something about childhood obesity by promoting physical activity in schools, albeit funded by a regressive sugar tax. Cue howls of anguish from the nanny state industry demanding to know why their pet project was ‘watered down’.

And yet the orchestrated outrage of ‘public health’ lobbyists masks the fact that they have won. The obesity strategy contains a pledge to reduce sugar content in food by 20 per cent, starting with ‘breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods (eg pastries), puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads’.

Thanks to a hysterical campaign against a waning ingredient, a whole raft of food products are going to taste worse in 2020 than they do today. And if the food industry doesn’t degrade the quality of its products voluntarily, the government promises to ‘use other levers to achieve the same aims’.

This is a colossal triumph for the food faddists by any standard. They have achieved more than they could possibly have expected when Action on Sugar launched on to the scene in January 2014. They even have the added bonus of a sugar tax.

Don’t be fooled by the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the ‘public health’ fraternity today. They will always claim to be underwhelmed by government policy. It’s part of the game. The gullible media will focus on what has supposedly been left out of the obesity strategy, but it is what is in it that counts. Unless the government comes to its senses, we will soon be one of a handful of countries that has a sin tax on soft drinks, and we will be one of a tiny number of countries that has the government dictating recipes to food manufacturers. This is a win beyond the wildest dreams of the nanny statists. They will hide it well, but they are over the moon.


  • lolexplosm

    People seem outraged that Big Food have obviously prevented their ads being banned during X factor by buying off the government yet they were unable to buy off the government to drop the sugar levy. Seems like a logical assumption.

    Some good news at least, Jamie Oliver is again reported to be “in shock”. He will have to take the lead and ban all fatty and sugary foods from his restaurants.

  • emma2000

    I just wish for a government that would leave me alone. What I eat, drink or smoke is none of their business.

    • Blueglass

      Even when you are being repeatedly lied to by the industries that are selling you things that are scientifically proven beyond doubt to be harmful to your health. You are happy for your health to be compromised, happy to cost the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds, happy to become a burden on your family and the tax payer? Yes it is their business, and it’s the tax payers business. Grow up.

      • emma2000

        How patronising ! At 74 and still paying income tax I think I am well grown up. Very glad to have grown up before the ‘experts’ tried to run our lives. My health is excellent for my age despite your dire predictions, apart from childbirth and one major, non lifestyle related operation, I have cost the NHS little and paid in all my working life, more than some do. I am not overweight, diabetic or any of the other so called lifestyle conditions. I have also lived long enough to see many ‘expert’ opinions proved wrong. Avoidance of all things currently disapproved of does not guarantee health or longevity so I intend to carry on as I always have.

        • Blueglass

          We live in a country full of sugar addicts with a health service that is struggling with the consequences. It’s not the governments business?

  • 50 years ago, just shy of my 10th birthday, and barely attentive to history – even while it unfolded around me I realized that there was a slippery slope. Not some fallacious construction used to overwhelm an opponent at debate, but a real, mind and society altering phenomena.

    Once one accepts the notion that any external group has even a small duty to decide on an issue of any import for the good of others, whoosh, the slide begins. The entire notion of “doing it for your own good” is the fabrication of meddlesome purists who, of course, are blind to their own inequities. Theirs is the most violent assault on the human condition, responsible for the worst plights in the course of human history – not just sometimes, but every. single. time.

    So now, 50 years after the push to move smokers by coercion and force, we are now down that slope a fair ways with similar mandates, and the organizations of nattering nannies, moving in on the most basic of human choices. From sexual congress, marital choices, culinary preference, and recreational indulgence there are groups bent to the notion that they can make people better.

    Now I don’t hold to that idea. I aim to misbehave; to remind people that it wasn’t groups of surrogate parents that moved humanity forward, but individuals working together using knowledge gained from cooperation, experience gained from failure, and compassion borne from community that creates the diverse human experience. As Emerson wrote of self reliance “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” I will not allow the monotone of those who seek the control of others to wipe the color from the world.

    And neither should you!

    • Clactonite

      Agreed. I am in my mid-fifties. I don’t smoke, but this sums it up https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2fYguIX17Q 3min 30 seconds in.

    • Blueglass

      Bruce. I have read your post several times. I have no idea what you are talking about.

  • kyalami

    The “wailing and gnashing of teeth” group also include Dr Sarah Wollaston, a Tory MP and medical doctor. Has she got it wrong, too?

  • Jeff

    Gated Communities

    Gated communities are taking on an important role in modern politics. Donald Trump grew up in a gated community, and made his fortune building gated communities that illegally exclude African-Americans. Trump’s approach is not based on ideology, but on consumer demand, and in particular, the demand of the working class to live in a place where there are no minority groups, criminals, wierdos or politically correct (Catholic educated) people.

    A gated community has a number of characteristics. There is ideally a six metre high concrete wall to keep out intruders. When the wall surrounds a very large number of houses, the average cost of the wall becomes insignificant. Getting past the security guards is like going through customs. Hence there is no crime in a gated community, and children can roam unsupervised in complete safety. Parents can be sure their daughters will not encounter males that would be unsuitable sons-in-law.

    Allotments are typically quarter-acre or five acres (one-tenth or two hectares). Houses are fireproof and of a similar appearance. Services are provided by underground ducts, including pneumatic mail delivery. Television and internet are unobtrusively censored.

    There is a shopping centre with a supermarket and other key shops. Prices are controlled to prevent gouging. There is a club for men and older boys from which women are excluded. On the top of the shopping centre is a hospital and old people’s home overlooking a race track and playing fields.

    There is a non-denomination church, which has leather sofas instead of pews, and wallpaper with pictures of saints like in an eastern orthodox church. The priest is a family man employed by the management committee. There is a co-educational school, so that if children conceive a passionate desire for a classmate, it will be someone of the opposite gender. The school has international baccalaureate and no homework.

    Once people move into a gated community, it occurs to them that, instead of their having to move into a gated community, it would be better if the “undesirables” were forced to live in ghettos, or were kicked out of the country altogether. No doubt this is what Donald Trump has in mind. The Conservative Party should take on board this trend in modern living and become the party for people who live or would like to live in gated communities. ef

  • Elsdon Ward

    Whilst it is true that we are in the midst of a Nanny State regime- whose concept is that they know what is best for us – the real danger is that they may be getting it wrong. Amongst the maelstrom of do-gooders and rebels there exists objectivity and truth.

    The Marlbro Man died of throat cancer – as did many other marlbrough smokers.

    It is not difficult to read between the lines in order to determine that an excess of things may be bad for us – but if these things are also shortening our lives – there is the rub. There has to be people who work hard to determine the truth of things – and the answers are not going to come from the rebels who wish to carry on regardless. These people are not ‘do gooders’ – they are the saviours of future humanity.

    True – there is a worldwide obesity epidemic – But also true we are establishing the reasons for it, – we are working on it and the day will come when we will look back and say -‘ Remember when we all ate and drank that stuff because we just did not know it was wrong. Remember when the food industry continued to push that substance even in the face of medical evidence’.We have a collective responsibility to cherish these enlightened and gifted people in order to pass the benefits on to our children. We will not do that by hiding our heads in the sugar bowl.

    I now accept as truth that sugar was put into our food to deter microbes in the absence of fat – and has then been exploited to give processed food shelf life and flavour. There is absolutely no justification in supporting the daily ingestion of sugar in all of our foods and drinks – it just was not in our foods fifty years ago. And fifty years ago we were trim. Whilst sugar may not – probably definitely not the whole cause – it is definitely part of the problem and I am not going to support any justification for the mistake that has been made in the Western World over sugar.

    Ask yourselves why we have not been able to solve the obesity crisis. It is because it is complicated – it is to do with the effects of chemicals upon our genes and our microbiota – It is to do with out sanitised environments. It is to do with anti-biotics, the destruction of our mother microbes and the lasting effects upon our body health.

    Eventually we will be wise but not before more young lives have been ruined. But thank heaven for those people who spend their lives uncovering the truth because without them there is no hope left for humanity. Please whatever you do try to post responsibly

  • swheelz

    Your ignorance of nutritional science is quite breathtaking given the apparent certainty with which you present your misinformed, simplistic and highly partisan perspective of these complex issues. I know this is The Spectator, but please try to factor in your own lack of expertise when making such authoritative claims, rather than sounding like President of the Young Conservatives. Not all people who consider regulation as a potentially effective public health strategy are ‘nanny staters’ and Action Against Sugar is just a pressure group, not the arbiter of public health strategy for the UK government. Please try to grow up, just a little…