Once you accept that the modern ‘public health’ movement is just the latest incarnation of the puritanism that waxes and wanes throughout history, it is easy to predict its next target. If you further assume – and who can now deny it? – that nanny state campaigners follow a blueprint laid down by the anti-smoking lobby, it becomes easy to guess not only their future targets but also their methods.
And so, when I suggested in an interview a few years ago that the next vices to fall under the cross-hairs of ‘public health’ would be caffeine, gambling and red meat, it was not because I had psychic powers, nor because there were rumblings in the medical journals about these issues (there wasn’t). It was because they have been for centuries the classic targets of scolds and ascetics once they tire of fighting the demon drink and tobacco.
Coffee is too popular with the upper-middle classes to be done away with yet, but this year saw the start of a minor crusade against energy drinks. The imminent downfall of fixed-odds betting terminals represents the first real scalp for the anti-gamblers in decades, with gambling advertising lined up as the next dragon to slay.
Meat has had an easier ride. Until now. A study published today in PLoS One looks very much like the start of a concerted effort to clamp down on processed and red meat. The crusade is beginning, as such crusades usually do, with a push for a sin tax.
Like most of the influential policy-based evidence in ‘public health’ of recent years, the study rests on opaque computer modelling. It produces estimates of how many people are dying from the over-consumption of meat, how much this costs society and what size of tax is needed to balance out the costs. It then estimates how many lives will be extended by processed meat consumption falling in an era of higher prices.
The published paper does not provide enough information for the model to be meaningfully assessed by the reader, but one thing is clear: the numbers are unfeasibly large. The authors reckon that the global death toll from processed and red meat is 2,390,000 people a year. The link between processed meat and bowel cancer is reasonably robust by the debased standards of nutritional epidemiology and there may be an association between meat-eating and coronary heart disease and stroke. Even so, a figure of 2.4 million defies belief. The authors admit that the Lancet’s Global Burden of Disease reports estimated the true figure to be 900,000 in 2010 and 700,000 in 2013. That is enough of a discrepancy, but they do not mention the most recent edition of the report which put the figure at just 140,000. The estimate published today is therefore seventeen times larger than an estimate of the same risk factor published barely a year ago. How can anyone have confidence in this field of academia?
Their estimates for the UK are equally outlandish. They claim that processed and red meat causes 70,000 deaths a year in Britain. That’s one in nine! 70,000 deaths is far more than is said to be caused by obesity and ten times more than is caused by alcohol. If today’s estimate is correct – and let’s face it, it’s not – only smoking can rival it.
If you can swallow the idea that 2.4 million people are struck down by bacon butties and surf-and-turf every year, you might be inclined to believe the authors’ estimate that processed and red meat incurs a cost of $285 billion to the world’s healthcare systems each year. Taking this figure and adding in some unspecified assumptions about the cost to the environment of cattle emitting greenhouse gases, they decide that the price of processed meat should rise in rich countries by an average of 111 per cent to offset its negative effects.
Calculations of this sort are not unusual in economics. The standard way of dealing with negative externalities is to implement a Pigovian tax, thereby passing the external costs of consumption back to the user. To do that, you must first work out what the net external costs are. This is where people in ‘public health’ invariably go wrong, counting internal costs (such as lost productivity) as external costs and failing to subtract savings. People who live to a ripe old age tend to cost a lot of money, but a classic mistake in ‘public health’ studies of this kind is assuming that someone who avoids a diet-related disease will avoid every other disease and never trouble the health service again.
Today’s study is not detailed enough for us to tell whether the authors have made all of these mistakes but the sheer size of their estimates suggest they have. They reckon that the UK alone needs to tax meat-eaters to the tune of £2.9 billion a year. This, they say, will reduce consumption of processed meat by ten grams a day and save 6,100 lives. That is nearly half a million pounds for every hypothetical life.
Leaving aside the garbage-in, garbage-out methodology at the root of these numbers, it seems unlikely that a British government – even one that bans plastic straws and taxes fizzy drinks – will introduce a 78 per cent tax on processed meat any time soon, although that is what the authors recommend. It is even less likely that everybody in the world will go vegan, although that is what the lead author, Marco Springmann, told delegates needed to happen at the End of Meat conference last year.
And yet every nanny state policy sounds absurd until the public have been battered with soundbites, dodgy statistics and empty promises for a few years. Nobody who has witnessed the unstoppable rise of the ‘public health’ movement over the last two decades can dismiss the possibility of a meat tax being introduced in the foreseeable future, probably followed by an advertising ban and graphic warnings.
The odds shorten when you consider that it is not just the ‘public health’ lobby that wants it. There is now an unholy alliance between health campaigners, vegans, vegetarians and environmentalists on this issue. This is the next battleground of lifestyle regulation and only a fool would bet against the people who always win.