The Jamie Oliver show arrived in Parliament yesterday as part of the health select committee on childhood obesity. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Action on Sugar show arrived in Parliament with Jamie Oliver as its guest star since it is the anti-sugar lobby group that appears to be running this circus.
Last week saw the appearance of Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar, demanding a mind-blowing array of authoritarian laws which, he claimed, would eliminate obesity entirely. Next week will see another Action on Sugar kingpin, Simon Capewell, take the floor but to avoid the suspicion that this is an echo chamber he will be wearing his other hat as vice president of policy at the Faculty of Public Health. Other speakers in this short, three-day hearing are Malcolm Clark of the Children’s Food Campaign who was running the campaign for a fizzy drinks tax long before Oliver climbed aboard. Later in the week will see an appearance from Susan Jebb who was credited as an adviser on Jamie Oliver’s risible anti-sugar ‘documentary’ and who — surprise, surprise — is also a sugar tax advocate. She will be joined by Peter Scarborough and Colin Michie who don’t just want to tax sugar, they also want to tax fat and salt, so that should provide a bit of variety.
Today, however, was all about Jamie Oliver and that’s just the way he likes it. It isn’t easy being a devout anti-sugar campaigner when you peddle the stuff for a living but the MPs in the committee — most of whom are doctors — were never going to go all Paxman on him. With the questions being bowled at him underarm, Oliver came unstuck only occasionally. ‘We certainly don’t sell Haribos and Coca-Cola,’ he protested when asked about the calorific snacks sold at his Gatwick outlet. ‘Well, we do sell Coca-Cola.’
The sleb chef’s constant injunction was for politicians to be ‘brave’. Bravery in this instance meant being brave enough to tax fizzy drinks. ‘We,’ he said — meaning the government — ‘need to be big, bold, brave and, frankly, act like a parent.’ Leaving aside the fact that having the government act ‘like a parent’ is pretty much the dictionary definition of a nanny state, his call for bravery was intended to both flatter and imitate his inquisitors. He was telling them that if they do what he wants they can walk tall, but if they ignore him they’ll be cowards. But would that be bravery? It is true that taxes on food and drink tend to be unpopular, as the Danish fat tax fiasco demonstrated, but there is nothing courageous about wealthy politicians taxing the poor to satisfy the whims of a millionaire restaurateur.
Oliver’s performance dripped passion and sincerity, but being earnest is no substitute for being right. These sessions are supposed to be about gathering evidence and Oliver had little to offer. A question about whether a soda tax would be regressive — as it unquestionably would — was batted away with some wishful thinking about helping the poor lose weight. A question about unintended consequences was met with the glib assertion that whatever happened would be an improvement on the status quo. This was flaky stuff, to say the least. There was no acknowledgement that kids are drinking significantly fewer sugary drinks than they did in the 1990s, nor that sugar consumption has been in decline for decades. There was no discussion of the evidence, carefully marshalled in this study, that pulling economic levers has little if any effect on obesity. And, as in every session of these hearings to date, physical activity went unmentioned.
Evidence might not be Oliver’s strong point, but he can recite an anecdote. The most memorable of these was intended to shock but did so for all the wrong reasons. Recounting a conversation with a young school girl, he said:
‘This seven-, eight-year-old said to me “Jamie, why is it that me and my friends are expected to live a shorter life than our parents?” And coming from a child’s voice [it] was completely different from the data I’d read or talked about with adults and professionals.’
It is heart-breaking to think that children of this age are thinking about death at all, let alone living in fear of dying younger than their parents. But who is responsible for bringing this half-baked factoid into common usage in Britain? Step foward, Jamie Oliver. He has spent years claiming that ‘the next generation will live shorter lives than their parents’. He tells parents that their children ‘will live a life ten years younger than you’ despite there being very little evidence that this is so. The closest thing to a supportive academic study is a 2005 article from the USA (where obesity rates are significantly higher than they are here) which cast doubt on a previous claim that life expectancy will rise to 100 by the year 2060. The authors argued that ‘life expectancy at birth and at older ages could level off or even decline within the first half of this century’ if obesity rates continued to rise.
The article was clearly intended as a challenge to the conventional wisdom. It was not mainstream opinion, let alone fact, and the authors were far from certain that life expectancy would level off (as it one day must), let alone decline. When the BBC did a little fact-checking last year, it found plenty of reason to doubt it. The mortality rates for all the diseases associated with obesity are falling, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Obesity has not put life expectancy into reverse in the USA and it seems to have had almost no impact in Britain where rates are lower (and flat). There is no doubt that people born today have a higher life expectancy than the people who give birth to them.
Dodgy though it is, one can see how the kids-dying-younger-than-their-parents meme could be useful to a political rabble-rouser, but it is genuinely tragic to think that it has filtered down to young minds who naturally believe what adults tell them.
Assuming Oliver’s anecdote is true, this poor child’s irrational fear is a microcosm of what the great sugar panic has been doing to the country since Action on Sugar launched its ridiculous campaign last year. Some day we will look back with bemusement on the days when a teaspoon of sugar was viewed as a unit of harm. Let us hope that day comes soon, before the mental health of a whole generation is irreparably scarred.