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Sunday, 26 January 2014

Is sugar really the new tobacco?

An interesting story caught my eye the other day. Tony Badger, the owner of a British food shop in Canada, was ordered to stop selling Marmite, Ovaltine and Irn Bru because they contained ‘illegal’ additives. Mr Badger had been selling these items since 1997, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is now increasing its inspections of suppliers and cracking down on the sale of such goods.
I wrote almost exactly a year ago about a proposal to introduce legal limits on the sugar, salt and fat content in food in the UK.

I said then that:

"Legislation … can only be defined as ‘helpful’ if you think that it is your responsibility is to remove choices from people who are unable to act rationally and who might otherwise damage themselves. Legislation only counts as help if you believe that people are not capable of helping themselves, not capable of making informed decisions in their own interests."

The politics of food are even more depressing now. Every other week some quasi-autonomous pressure group will try to flex its muscles, which will usually be followed by a politician -out to make a name as a reformer concerned only about the public good- proposing another asinine and illiberal piece of legislation.

The pressure group Action on Sugar is currently getting lots of exposure in the UK. Their poster boy, Dr Aseem Malhotra, has been floating the idea that ‘sugar is the new tobacco’ and urging government action. One of the central planks of their argument is that sugar has ‘no nutritional value’. I must have missed the memo about abolishing eating for mere pleasure. Why do these people think that everything we eat has to have some nutritional value? Has it occurred to them that perhaps people like eating sweet things because they taste nice?

I'm a non-smoker, but from a civil liberties point of view, I think the way the smoking ban was introduced provides an interesting model for what our food future will look like.

The 'health' justification for a smoking ban had been around for decades, but it was only in the last few years that governments got around to imposing it. The first epidemiological studies showing an association between smoking and lung cancer were published as far back as 1950. If the health risks were /are that serious, why was the full ban not introduced in 1968 or 1975 or 1994? Why the long delay?

One of the reasons, I would suggest, is that the concept of a ban had to be allowed to percolate for a while in the public consciousness. People have to be primed in order to accept a law like that. Potentially ‘difficult’ ideas get introduced into the public domain via the drip method: first you suggest something fairly radical, see how that goes down, then let it simmer for a while. Once it becomes a notion that many folk find more or less acceptable, it starts to acquire a certain inevitability.

Now that the smoking ban is an accepted part of everyday life, all bets are off on where we might end up. ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) has already proposed that the ban be extended to smoking in cars; I’d wager that it is only a matter of time before smoking is completely illegal. This ‘public health’ model of government intervention is also being applied to the debate on internet regulation. The arguments have become familiar: vulnerable people have to be protected, children can't be exposed to porn and paedophiles, militant nutters can't be allowed to propagandize and proselytize, yadda yadda yadda. It's not that big a leap to envisage a gradual clamping down on internet activities 'in the public interest'.

For a certain type of person, the answer to every perceived ‘problem’ is always more government action, more legislation, more decision-making taken out of the hands of people like you and me, people who simply can’t be trusted to act in our own best interests. We needed to be told to stop smoking. We’ll need to be told to stop eating doughnuts. We’ll need to be told to stop accessing ‘inappropriate’ material on the internet. Left unchecked and unchallenged, there is simply no area of private life into which these people will not attempt to intrude. Of course, the sugar Nazis -motivated by a vague desire to do good- will argue that legislation is required because the food industry can’t be trusted to act responsibly. But the darker, less palatable truth is that they don’t trust us, the people, to act responsibly.

The more that slick opportunists like Dr Malhotra pop up on TV and radio telling us that ‘sugar is the new tobacco’, the more likely some folk are to believe it. The pressure for legislation will then start to build, because that’s how it works. They won’t be happy until they get what they want. And once they get what they want, they’ll want a little bit more. And then a little bit more. And the more we allow ourselves to be governed like this, the further that trend will develop. We will sleepwalk towards a future in which our children and our grandchildren will have fewer rights as citizens than we currently have.

Somehow, I’m reminded of that old saying:

Why does the dog lick his balls? Because he can.

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