In a remarkable authoritarian parting shot as she left her post as chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies published a report entitled Time to Solve Childhood Obesity, which was warmly welcomed by health secretary Matt Hancock.
The report’s recommendations would create a positively dystopian world. Public Health England wants to outright ban eating on public transport. Inflated VAT rates would make simple food and drinks purchases seem rather more extravagant than before. There would be no more junk food ads, and buying fast food would become an ordeal and a luxury.
But if the government opts to follow the report’s recommendations – which is a real possibility, whoever wins the election – this brave new world could soon become a reality.
The supposed childhood obesity epidemic has been slowly but surely taking over British public health discourse. It began around 2005, with Jamie Oliver’s televisual lip service, and eventually resulted in George Osborne’s sugar tax eleven years later.
With over one in five English 10 and 11-year-olds suffering from obesity according to the latest available data from the NHS, the government has understandably set alarm bells ringing.
The domineering, restrictive approach being proposed by Public Health England, however, brings to light some deep-seated issues.
The key one has to do with individual freedoms. Radical measures like taxing “unhealthy” foods, banning ads and enforcing plain packaging would fail to tackle childhood obesity, while also harshly affecting adults and their personal choices.
This kind of nannyism is remarkably cross-party, differing only in degree. While Jeremy Corbyn’s support for sin taxes and junk food ad bans comes as no surprise, it is quite baffling to witness Tories persistently meddling with individual choices too.
Considering the party’s ideological roots, you would expect the Conservatives to be more mindful of the dangers this approach poses for the fundamental freedom to choose.
Plain packaging of tobacco products and the ban on plastic straws signalled a drastic shift away from core Conservative values, and it seems that things are only getting worse.
Public support appears dishearteningly high for such approaches. A YouGov poll from a few months ago showed that 55 per cent of the public believe we need additional taxation on unhealthy foods and drinks. Alarmingly, the figure among Conservative voters is 54 per cent.
The poll also found that nearly two-thirds of British adults would be in favour of banning junk food TV ads before the 9pm watershed, with only 20 per cent opposed. Almost three quarters support restrictions on food advertising on YouTube and social media.
In this context, ad bans and harsh authoritarian restrictions are seeming less and less draconian. It would appear that infringing on individual choices is politically profitable in Britain today. It is little wonder, then, that the Tory party continues to err on the side of greater state interference, despite the ideological mismatch it causes.
Although whether we will truly find ourselves waking up one day to be greeted by Public Health England’s brave and healthy new world remains unclear.
Back in July, Boris Johnson vowed to review sin taxes and put an end once and for all to the “continuing creeping of the nanny state”, but since then, solid commitments or steps in that direction have not been forthcoming.
Perhaps, the nanny state seems appealing to many at the moment because we have not yet experienced fully fledged nannyism in action.
If the current trend continues, we may find out by 2024 whether following Public Health England’s programme of taxes, ad bans and plain packaging will be enough to fight childhood obesity, or if yet more restrictions on consumer choice will be on their way.