Obesity seems to be a risk factor if you have coronavirus. The figures vary, but research suggests that around 90 per cent of Covid-19 patients admitted to intensive care units are overweight or obese, and that morbidly obese people are twice as likely to die from the virus. There is even talk of obese people moving up the vaccine priority list.
Predictably, opportunistic red tape enthusiasts are leaping on this fact. Public health nannies are weaponsing the Covid crisis to push through some of their most deranged policy ideas. Things which seemed completely off the table when Boris Johnson first came to power a mere eighteen months ago, like blanket ad bans and outlawing ‘buy one get one free’ deals on unhealthy foods, are now government policy.
These proposals are plainly borne out of a fetish for paternalism, rather than any empirical logic. The evidence that Britain is suffering from an ‘obesity crisis’ is incredibly shoddy. If Public Health England really does want to make Britons thinner, they would be better off encouraging us to take up smoking en masse.
The government’s current approach to obesity policy simply does not work. Its own analysis predicts that its ad ban, for example, will eliminate just 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – the equivalent of half a Smartie. And that’s before we get to the immense economic costs of these policies.
So-called ‘sin taxes’ hit the poor harder than anyone else, and the last thing companies need as they try to recover from the pandemic is for advertising to become impossible. And it’s not just the commercial giants who will lose out. Data suggests that 250,000 British small businesses could vanish this year thanks to the effects of lockdown, in addition to the thousands which have already disappeared – restricting advertising will only inflate that number.
When she is not working in a care home, my Italian immigrant mother runs a small bakery and food delivery service out of her kitchen. She advertises her business on social media. Is she really going to have PC Plum knocking on her door and demanding she take down photos of her cakes from her Instagram account?
There are also – already – some quite fundamental problems with the rollout of these measures. According to the government definition of ‘junk food’, honey, yoghurt, mustard, tinned fruit, and Marmite are all for the chop. Placing government departments in charge of people’s lives in this way inevitably leads to these kinds of problems. You would have thought that now, more than ever, that point would be obvious – right now, I am sincerely unsure whether sitting on a park bench to drink a coffee is legal.
If the government actually does want to do something about obesity, there are a thousand better ways to go about it. A modicum of creative thinking in this area could yield far better results, without the huge economic cost or infringement on liberty. For instance, something as simple as supermarkets voluntarily removing sweets from their checkouts to prevent impulse buys reduces sales of chocolate and crisps by a fifth.
Other nudge policies of this kind have been implemented around the world, with remarkable outcomes. In Iceland, a supermarket partnered with children’s TV show LazyTown, which features a fitness-fixated superhero, and rebranded its fruit and veg as ‘sports candy’ (LazyTown’s name for healthy food). Sales of those items increased by 22 per cent and, in the years since, Iceland is one of the only countries in the world which has reported a drop in childhood obesity levels.
These kinds of policies don’t just work on children. In a study in the US, researchers added a line of yellow duct tape to shopping trolleys, along with labels instructing shoppers to place fruit and veg in one part of the trolley, and everything else in the other. Sales of fruit and veg in those stores increased by over 100 per cent.
There are countless examples of policies like these which find inventive, unintrusive, cost-free ways to promote healthier lifestyles. There is plenty we can do to address obesity without resorting to drowning businesses in red tape or trying to tax unhealthy foods out of existence. Let’s not allow obesity-obsessed public health nannies to use the Covid crisis to push through their harmful and ineffectual pet policies.