Public health proposals too often come with unintended consequences or simply fail to address the true problemby Julian Baggini / October 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
No eating on buses. Biscuits to be sold in plain packaging. A calorie limit on takeaway meals. A few years ago such suggestions would have been considered laughable, not so much a nanny state but a fantastical Mary Poppins on steroids one.
But all these ideas are now both serious and respectable. They were among the recommendations of the final report from the retiring Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies. She is not the only one to have called for radical measures to combat obesity and ill health in 2019. The public policy think tank IPPR has called for “Plain packaging on sweets and other confectionary, sugary drinks and crisps” and banning advertising for unhealthy food products until after the 9pm watershed. The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission has advocated restrictions on advertising for “high sugar, salt, trans fats and ultra-processed foods” including a requirement to use “plain and factual packaging.”
The expression “Desperate times call for desperate measures” could have been invented for this deluge of unlikely and often impractical suggestions. The reality and scale of the problems they seek to tackle is undeniable. Davies’s report stresses that “Being overweight or obese in childhood has profound impacts on the health and life chances of children,” “Children living in the most deprived areas are disproportionately affected” and “Our environment has slowly changed, and it makes it hard for our children to be healthy.”
Little wonder that people are trying to find ways to radically disrupt a market that has been very good at delivering profits and ill-health. The problem is that food, nutrition, human behaviour and the economic system are all individually complex and collectively Byzantine. Most of the proposed solutions get caught in this Gordian knot.
A telling example of this is plain paper packaging. I was recently a juror for a Food Ethics Council “Food Policy on trial” event in which I heard expert evidence for and against the idea. I was unpersuaded of its merits, for reasons which apply to many other areas of public health, especially around food.
First, whenever there is a public health problem there is a desire to use tobacco as the model for how to deal with it. But tobacco is a special case. Smoking is not necessary, it is inherently harmful and tobacco is easy to single…