January is a bleak month for many of us. I shall be glad to see the back of it, but if you are a ‘public health’ campaigner it is the most wonderful time of the year.
December brings them nothing but misery. People are in no mood to listen to nanny state scolds as Christmas approaches. They don’t care how many calories are in the figgy pudding or how many units of alcohol are in the brandy butter. For a few short weeks, the country starts to resemble merry old England and nanny statists, sensing the public mood, go to ground. There they wait, biding their time until the glorious moment on January 1st when the gluttony and drunkenness winds down and they can set to work on a weary, bloated population that has not yet abandoned its new year’s resolutions.
The start of (Dry) January is therefore peak time for health scares, dubious dietary advice, and ‘clampdowns’. The nagging from Public Health England seems to start earlier every year. This time, the month had barely begun before its mandarins were instructing parents not to buy their offspring snacks containing more than 100 calories. Chocolate bars, cakes, pastries, ice creams and crisps were suddenly off limits for anyone under the age of 18. The gist of the advice – to buy healthy snacks rather than junk food – was well-meaning enough, but it was spoiled by the spurious accuracy of the calorie limit and the suggestion that numerous everyday food products are inherently harmful.
It is easy to ignore such guidelines and you probably will, but the new snacking limits were a sign that something was afoot at Public Health England. They were announced only days after the agency decreed that breakfast should not contain more than 400 calories and that lunch and dinner should be capped at 600 calories each. When it was suggested that 1,600 calories a day might not be enough to keep body and soul together – even under wartime rationing, civilians were given 3,000 calories a day – Public Health England confirmed that the daily guidelines of 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 calories for men were still in place and that ‘snacks and drink consumed between meals should make up the difference.’ Under the new ‘400-600-600 rule’, therefore, men are expected to consume 900 calories in sugary drinks, alcoholic beverages and tasty treats. Unusual advice for a health promotion agency, but at least the last bit will be easy to adhere to.
Who are these people and why are they setting us so many targets? Ever since it opened its doors in April 2013, Public Health England has been a strange beast: a multi-billion pound leviathan built in an age of austerity, a semi-independent state-funded body emerging from a bonfire of the quangos, a central public health agency at a time when public health was being decentralised. Its very first action was to issue a statement supporting minimum pricing for alcohol. This set the tone for what was to follow.
The key to understanding Public Health England – and the ‘public health’ movement in general – is that it is not primarily concerned with public health. It has the resources to tackle seasonal epidemics such as the current Aussie flu, but its officials are generally more interested in changing people’s lifestyles. No one denies that lifestyle choices can increase the risk of some non-communicable diseases, but there is nothing ‘public’ about them. Eating, drinking, smoking and lazing around are personal matters that may or may not have personal consequences. In the liberal tradition, this makes them nobody else’s business and, despite spurious claims about the cost of lifestyle-related diseases to the public purse, they are none of the government’s business either.
Needless to say, ‘public health professionals’ do not subscribe to the liberal tradition. As self-appointed guardians of our wellbeing, they will make us healthy whether we want to be or not. Their latest ruse is to put us on a diet without our knowledge or consent. This is where the apparent madness of Public Health England’s weird new calorie advice reveals its method. By setting arbitrary limits on the number of calories that should be in snacks and meals, the agency has given itself dragons to slay. Restaurants and food manufacturers will now be expected to reduce their servings to meet the new guidelines. Those who don’t will be named and shamed, and companies will be threatened with legislation if they don’t cooperate with the ‘voluntary’ arrangement.
This is phase two of Public Health England’s ‘health by stealth’ strategy. The first phase saw the food industry instructed to remove 20 per cent of sugar from its products by 2020. How simple the world is to the bureaucrat with a plan! No thought seems to have gone into how this target was to be achieved, and when the health apparatchiks finally realised that sugar is integral to sugary treats, they encouraged the companies to take the only course available to them – making the products smaller. Hence the phenomenon of ‘shrinkflation’. The latest casualty seems to be the Digestive biscuit. As McVitie’s announced this month, a pack of Digestives is to be reduced by 20 per cent while the price is reduced by just eight per cent. Like other manufacturers, the company intimated that Brexit and the rising cost of raw ingredients were responsible, but when the Office for National Statistics studied the issue last year, it found no evidence for this. The truth is that our food is being literally diminished as a deliberate consequence of government policy.
When the sugar reduction scheme began, Public Health England explicitly said that it would move onto salt, fat and calories in 2018. That is now happening and a big announcement is expected in March, along with the first official naming and shaming of recalcitrant businesses. The creation of the 400-600-600 ‘rule’ over Christmas set the scene for an experiment in state-control of the food supply that goes beyond anything tried in other countries and that is without precedent in peacetime Britain. Smaller chocolate bars and artificially sweetened Lucozade are just the first products off the reformulation assembly line. Over the next few years, consumers will find that a surprisingly large number of their favourite products starts to taste a bit funny.
It is not just drinkers of fizzy pop who are under attack. Last week, the Conservative Party’s nanny-in-chief, Dr Sarah Wollaston, used a Health Select Committee inquiry as a vehicle to reignite the campaign for minimum alcohol pricing in England. With the path cleared for this regressive policy in Scotland and Wales, the anti-drink brigade feels the wind in its sails and is moving on to fresh targets. Following the anti-smoking playbook to the letter, its new objectives are cancer warnings on bottles and a total ban on drinks advertising.
The resurgent temperance lobby can rely on Public Health England’s support on every front. E-mails released under the Freedom of Information Act last year revealed an extraordinarily cosy relationship between Public Health England and the Institute of Alcohol Studies, an anti-drink pressure group formerly known as the UK Temperance Alliance. In late 2016, the agency published a factually inaccurate ‘evidence review’ of alcohol policy which gave a green light to anything that raised prices, disrupted the market and denormalised the product.
Revised guidelines play a role in the war on alcohol just as they do in the assault on food. The controversial decision to lower the drinking guidelines for men to just 14 units a week was announced by the Chief Medical Officer in January 2016 and was the work of a small clique of activists and academics whose prejudices against alcohol are well known. The scientific justification for lowering the guidelines was extraordinarily weak and the committee had to change their methodology at the eleventh hour to give it a fig leaf of respectability.
Despite all the effort that went into creating and publicising the new guidelines, a study published last year found that only eight per cent of us know what they are. That won’t concern the ‘public health’ lobby too much. Guidelines are not really aimed the general public, who do much as they please anyway. They are political tools designed to inflate the size of the problem and justify tougher government action.
Nanny state campaigners thrive on keeping people alarmed by what H. L. Mencken called ‘an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’ Per capita consumption of alcohol has fallen sharply since the turn of the century and is no higher today than it was in 1980. It is therefore convenient for the fear-mongers that the drinking guidelines have become progressively tighter over the years. For men, they have fallen from 28 units to 21 units and, most recently, to 14 units. There is now talk of lowering them still further and it seems inevitable that they will one day fall to zero. Every time the guidelines fall, the number of ‘hazardous drinkers’ rises, on paper if not in practice.
The same is true of sugar. Per capita sugar consumption is twenty per cent lower than it was in the 1970s and consumption of sugary drinks – which will start being taxed in April – has fallen by 45 per cent since 2003. Whilst it is true that Britons consume twice as much sugar as the government recommends, that is only because the government halved its recommendation in 2015.
As the goalposts keep moving, the supposed ‘epidemics’ and ‘timebombs’ that drive the crusade onwards appear to worsen. Now we have stringent calorie limits for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks that will allow campaigners to condemn individual food portions as hazardous products. Last week, the weirdo pressure group Action on Sugar got into the January spirit by calling for ‘share bags’ of sweets to be banned because they contain more than an adult’s daily sugar ‘allowance’.
A new era of coercive puritanism is unfolding for which ‘nanny state’ is too mild a term. We are dealing with people who believe that freedom is fundamentally unhealthy. At the centre of it all is the mothership, Public Health England, with its vast resources – it spent a staggering £4.5 billion last year – and its direct line to government. With its squadron of public heath directors on six figure salaries in every local authority in the land, it agitates for banning new takeaway outlets, banning new licensed premises, banning smoking outdoors, banning anything it can think of. In November, it even called for a ban on Coca-Cola’s Christmas truck coming to town.
Unelected, unaccountable, and out of control, Public Health England has become a magnet for every crank, puritan, food faddist, temperance zealot, anti-capitalist and social justice warrior with a penchant for remaking the world in their own image. What do we get in return? Smaller portions, artificial sweeteners, higher prices, fewer choices and a stream of increasingly bizarre pronouncements from an agency that seems more interested in manipulating the population than in providing sound advice upon which we can make our own choices.