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.