There is a small part of me that actually wants the head of the Food Standards Agency to win her battle to persuade the nation that bringing cakes into work is as bad as second-hand smoke. Because if she does, so obviously banal is cake that I might finally get to smoke in the office. (If we had an office.)
Combine that with Wes Streeting’s proposals to turbo-charge the black market in tobacco – purveyors of tax-free, tastefully-branded and excitingly-flavoured alternatives to this country’s increasingly miserable legal cigarettes, and it could be a bumper decade for the savvy smoker.
Alas, a pipe dream, at least as regards the first bit. But Susan Jebb’s argument is another notable watershed in the evolution of the debate on prescriptive public health, and yet another opportunity for Conservatives who fancy themselves opponents of the nanny state to take a hard look at themselves.
There are, as Christopher Snowdon notes in his piece on the subject, some quite obvious differences between second-hand smoke and what I guess we might call, now we need a name for it, environmental sugar hazard. If someone next to you tucks into a muffin, you aren’t left breathing the crumbs.
Unless you believe, as Jebb appears to, that people are only actually exercising agency when making health-maximising choices, there is a clear difference between the two scenarios.
Another point worth making is that the evidence base for public health interventions on food is a lot muddier, to put it mildly, than on tobacco; the opening of the fascinating, ten-part essay A Chemical Hunger suggests that “the study of obesity is the study of mysteries”, and then explores those mysteries in some detail.
Even if you’re not inclined to read all that, the sugar tax is a case in point. It has not reduced obesity (which has actually gone up). As this explainer from the Institute for Government sets out, it is considered a success because it has reduced sugar consumption, not delivered the actual health outcome that was supposed to attend reduced sugar consumption – a perfect example of the measure becoming the target.
This will bother the libertarians nor the puritans, who can comfort themselves that “that the SDIL is not a ‘silver bullet’” and keep demanding similar policies. But people in the middle, who don’t object to infringing individual liberty as doctrine but do think such interventions need to be well-evidenced, proportional, and effective, it ought to matter.
But stepping back from the details of this specific case, the whole thing once again throws a harsh light on the Conservatives’ increasingly vestigial opposition to the nanny state.
Because, as this former Labour adviser points out, Jebb is not wrong to claim that people choosing to eat cake is a lot like people choosing to enter a venue that permitted smoking. Alternatives – not eating cake, going somewhere else – were available. The question is whether or not we think they should have that choice.
Jebb, as Snowdon points out, does not. Her attitude reflects the Henry Ford mindset of much of the public health lobby: you may choose whatever you like, as long as it’s the healthiest thing. It’s the same, specious, surface-level commitment to the language of freedom that slaps punitive levies on sugar and then credits the market for the disappearance of sugary drinks.
On paper, a commitment to freedom and personal responsibility remains a central and uncontroversial part of what it means, generally if not in every case, to be a Conservative. But it is difficult to see any evidence that this is actually an active element of the Party’s political thinking.
Yes, Rishi Sunak slapped down Jebb’s suggestion. But setting aside the obvious question of how she came to be appointed to head up a powerful quango after over a decade of Conservative government, neither he nor any other senior Tory ever follows that logic anywhere.
A coherent, pro-personal responsibility agenda would almost certainly entail repealing at least some part of the prescriptive legislation that has piled up since 1998. One might commission a review of whether various policies have actually delivered public health outcomes, assess their broader harms, or even outright defend the idea that some level of harm is an acceptable cost of genuine freedom of choice.
But in actual policy terms the offer is only ever that found in Job 38:11: “Here thou shalt come, but no further.” (To which we might add “At least, not quite yet.”)
Postscript: The Conservatives offering no counter-current to this stuff is how we have ended up in a world where a Labour MP deploys the phrase “the menace of office feeders” with a straight face.
She has been pilloried for this, but the head of the Food Standards Agency has succeeded in highlighting the menace of “office feeders” & got publicity for the Government’s total abandoning of any anti obesity strategy, which will cost the #NHS £billions. https://t.co/VpwcPrQ7zY— Ben Bradshaw (@BenPBradshaw) January 18, 2023