Let’s take back control from Public Health England

Ben Ramanauskas

October 12, 2018

As I sit here writing this piece, I’m looking forward to my traditional Friday lunch of a Chinese takeaway around the corner from my office. It consists of fried noodles with chicken and prawns. It is, no doubt, deeply unhealthy. Whether or not it’s any more bad for me than my choice of lunch on Thursday – a beef brisket burrito – is anyone’s guess.

However, stuffing my face with junk food on Thursdays and Fridays may soon become a thing of the past. This is because the puritanical, joyless nanny-statists at Public Health England (PHE) are at it again. They have announced that “drastic” measures are needed in order to tackle the country’s increasing waste line.

According to the sententious bores at PHE, such measures include shrinking the size of pizzas, taking away many of their toppings, and limiting the number of calories in pies. This is the latest in a long line of demands made by PHE aimed at curtailing personal freedom.

Of course, pizzas, pies and fried noodles are unhealthy. And yes, if I eat nothing but those things I will probably end up in a bad way. However, that should be my choice. Millions of people across the country derive pleasure from eating junk food. What’s more, they cause no harm to others in doing so.

So, PHE’s demands to limit the choice available to the public represent an unacceptable infringement on personal liberty. It is not anyone else’s business what you choose to put into your body – not society’s, not the government’s, and certainly not some unaccountable quango’s. The proposals set out by PHE are deeply immoral.

Again, if I were to spend my days doing nothing but lounging around, I would probably not be in a good way. The thing is, I don’t spend my time that way. Sure, I choose to eat unhealthily now and then, and I enjoy a few beers with my friends down the pub, but I also eat healthy food and exercise. This is true for countless people. And it is because we are responsible adults capable of making sensible choices about our life and health.

To use the government to stop people from making these choices for themselves is infantilising. Yet PHE has no issue with taking such a Pecksniffian approach. In a breathtaking display of arrogance, PHE thinks that it knows better than you about how you should live your life.

Not only do the proposals demanded by PHE eclipse individual responsibility, but they also seriously undermine parental responsibility. The vast majority of parents, grandparents and carers buy their children sweets, sugary drinks and pizzas, but they also ensure that they provide a balanced diet for their children and make sure that they get enough exercise. By legislating about what types of food and drink are available, the government takes the place of families in deciding what children can and cannot eat. It once again reveals just how highly PHE views itself – it not only thinks that it knows better than parents how to bring up children, it also believes that it cares more.

It goes beyond just being patronising too. PHE has previously demanded that certain foods should not be placed by the checkouts in supermarkets because children pester their parents to buy them. They seem to believe that parents are powerless to resist their children’s requests and that they will cave in at the first sign of pressure. Good parents know when to say no to children. They realise that although they’d love to treat little Jimmy to a bag of Haribo, and although they don’t like to see him upset, it is not in his best interests to do so. To suggest otherwise is to effectively accuse the majority of parents in this country of being incompetent, uncaring and neglectful.

Requiring cereals to carry health warnings is another prime example of this patronising, self-important clique. It is a reasonable assumption to make that if somebody sees a box of Honey Monster Sugar Puffs in the cereal aisle at their local supermarket, it will not come as a huge surprise for them to learn that they contain a lot of sugar. People are already aware of which products are unhealthy, and for those who are not, they simply have to check the nutritional information on the box. The nanny-statists assume that people are only aware of unhealthy food if it contains a big red label.

But PHE’s latest demands will join a long list of items that this dreary government is seeking to ban. Policies such as introducing taxes on sugary drinks, or limiting the calories in food, are incredibly regressive – and already government policy. Levying taxes simply makes food and drinks more expensive, and limiting calories in certain foods mean that people will have to buy more in order to feel full. There is a cost of living crisis in the UK, with many households struggling to make ends meet. Increasing the shopping bill for households will hit the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country the hardest.

This incessant control freakery from PHE is also bad news for businesses. Requiring them to lower their sugar content, change their ingredients, or make smaller products with different packaging adds extra financial pressure to firms. Moreover, banning buy-one-get-one-free offers and other special deals will simply make it increasingly difficult for shops to shift their stock – again hitting the profits of businesses.

Some foods are unhealthy, and excessive consumption can mean extra pressure being placed on the NHS. However, the regressive proposals put forward by Public Health England are patronising and infantilising, they curtail personal liberty and undermine parental responsibility. We should let adults be adults, leave parenting to parents, and let people make their own decisions about their lives.


Written by Ben Ramanauskas

Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University and a former adviser to the International Trade Secretary.


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