Don't think of the children

Posted on June 23, 2016

A new report by the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH), the Youth Health Movement and Slimming World says that young people are demanding action against fast-food outlets to tackle child obesity. The claims are based on an opinion poll of young people. The report also suggests that young people would support new labelling for 'unhealthy' food, including nutritional information aimed at young people and even cigarette-style health warnings.

A press release quotes Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of RSPH, saying: 'Sadly our childhood obesity rates are a national disgrace, and tackling this must be a priority for government - there can be no excuses for fudging action on what is our number one public health challenge.  While we welcome the government's introduction of a sugar levy on soft drinks, it is absolutely crucial that the forthcoming childhood obesity strategy commits to hard hitting action across a number of fronts - from advertising and marketing restrictions on junk food to product reformulation. This report gives a uniquely young person's perspective on what steps can and should be taken, and while there are no silver bullets, young people are very clear what the causes of obesity are, and what action they would like to see from government and industry in particular.'

The only thing that's 'junk' here is the report itself. Children are lectured constantly at school about healthy eating, which features not just in personal, social and health education but bleeds into every aspect of the curriculum, from science to English. No wonder that many children conclude that more action is needed and echo back the illiberal policy ideas of the public-health lobby.

But we don't let children vote and we don't generally involve them in serious policy discussions. Most people understand that children haven't got the maturity, experience or sense of independence required to come to sensible conclusions about our laws. While it can certainly be educative for children to debate the big issues of the day, and we should certainly get the facts about how they live when we are thinking about policies that will affect them, this new report seems manipulative: manipulative of children, using them as ventriloquist's dummies for a certain kind of policy, and manipulative of adults, by appealing to sentiment rather than principles and logic.

The fact is that fizzy drinks taxes, bans on takeaways and health warnings will make little difference to the nation's health. Indeed, the obsession with 'healthy' school meals may have pushed kids out of the school gates in search of something tasty, enjoyable and often cheaper. But while such policies won't make a dent in waistlines, they will take away yet more of our freedoms. Don't fall for this cynical attempt to persuade us to give up our liberties - it's the real 'national disgrace'.

LISTEN | Action on Consumer Choice campaign manager Rob Lyons on BBC Radio 2.