The Orwellian obesity strategy

Posted on February 15, 2016

George Orwell's Animal Farm is a fable about how a progressive idea, liberation, is slowly destroyed as the leaders of the rebellion, the pigs, take on more and more of the characteristics of the humans they once drove out. Eventually, to the dismay of the other animals on the farm, the humans and the pigs are indistinguishable. The rebels, corrupted by power, have become the oppressors. Given the way that tax-averse, anti-nanny-state Conservatives have run with almost every idea promoted by the public-health lobby, maybe it's time to dust off Orwell's classic. It seems a long time since 2010, when the notion of a Great Repeal Bill and the 'bonfire of the quangos' led many to believe that the tide of state intervention might be turning.

The latest sign of this trend comes in the form of the emerging details about the government's obesity strategy. Led by Action on Sugar, and with prominent support from Jamie Oliver, Public Health England and the Commons Health Select Committee, it's about to become official that sugar is the new public enemy. Having almost run out of illiberal means to clamp down on smoking - short of outright prohibition - serious attention has turned to a new crusade.

The most high-profile policy initiative proposed was a tax on sugar. David Cameron has noticeably softened his line on this from declaring that it was unnecessary to suggesting that nothing should be ruled out. However, the rumour mill suggests that a sugar tax will not be implemented in the short term. Instead, the threat of a sugar tax will be used to strongarm food manufacturers to 'reformulate' their products, cutting the amount of sugar in them.

While the anti-sugar lobby will no doubt be disappointed that a tax won't actually be imposed just yet, the basic strategy is exactly the one sugar obsessives have been promoting. Back in October last year, Rob Lyons from Action on Consumer Choice took part in a radio debate with Professor Graham McGregor, the founder of Action on Sugar. Here's what McGregor said:

"Our view is that we very much welcome a tax. It's additive to all the other measures. We know it reduces consumption, you only have to look at tobacco and alcohol. My view is that it should be an escalating tax that is like alcohol and tobacco, it goes up with time. So you have that tax in position, we can then say to the food industry and the soft drink industry: 'Look, you've got to reformulate, that is, slowly reduce the enormous amounts of sugar they're putting in all these foods. We need a regulated plan for that. If you don't reformulate properly, we'll escalate the tax, but if you do reformulate, we'll keep the tax at 10-20%.' In other words, you've got a mechanism to force the food industry to cooperate on a voluntary basis."

McGregor's authoritarianism and double-speak - 'forcing' food makers to 'cooperate on a voluntary basis' - could have come straight out of Orwell's other great fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four. But with McGregor's idea looking set to become government policy, one thing is clear: the public-health lobby knows the doors of government are always open to them.