Friday 30 October 2015

The Age of Unreason

“Government Must Act Now to Save Our Children” read a recent headline in the Times. The reference was, of course, to the demand that government introduce a sugar tax of between 10 and 20 per cent on fizzy drinks. I’ve written about this issue before, but it does seem to me that it now has all the hallmarks of a classic moral panic. It’s almost as if health campaigners have given up on minimum pricing for alcohol, and this is the next ‘big thing’ for them to obsess over. But actually it’s just top of a very long list of things that they think need taxing or banning – and the list gets longer and more absurd by the day.

It’s not that taxing sugary drinks wouldn’t reduce consumption, it would. Use taxation to raise the price of anything and consumption of it will fall, more or less, depending on the price-elasticity-of demand for the product concerned. The point is that the effect will be utterly trivial in terms of its impact on obesity. There are many, many products that contain added sugar, and a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph looks at how many ready meals sold in our major supermarkets contain much more added sugar than fizzy drinks. Should we tax or regulate to reduce sugar in them all? Health campaigners would say yes – the taxation and mass reformulation of products is exactly what they support; it’s all part of their mad plan for world domination – otherwise known as regulating capitalism out of existence!

The impression given by health activists, and much of the media, that sugar consumption is out of control is simply wrong. Reports from DEFRA and from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey show that sugar consumption is lower than it was 40 years ago; but when a moral panic sets in it’s a case of “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”.

Before we ask government to intervene in free markets we should first of all establish whether there has been a market failure that justifies such intervention. One of the most intriguing statistics I’ve read on the subject of sugar and non-alcoholic drinks came from JD Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin. Writing in Propel he disclosed that in the previous week ‘Spoons had sold 580,000 Pepsi products on draught and that 197,000 of them were Diet Pepsi and therefore sugar-free. That’s just over a third. In addition, Martin wrote, ‘Spoons sold a million cups of tea and coffee that were served without sugar. So when we talk about all non-alcoholic drinks and not just fizzy drinks, it is clear that customers were already, overwhelmingly, choosing the sugar-free options. This may not be a scientific survey, but it’s a highly indicative snapshot of the choices people are now making, so where’s the evidence of market failure? And what a brilliant baseline of free choice on which a successful public education campaign could build.

But back to alcohol. According to the press, Public Health England has said there is no safe level of alcohol consumption in terms of the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Now, whilst there is a specific form of dementia called Wernicke-Korsakov syndrome that arises when you pickle your brain in copious quantities of alcohol over a prolonged period of time, the evidence for a causal link between low and moderate alcohol consumption and Alzheimer’s is very weak indeed. But Public Health England say just because there is no evidence that alcohol is implicated doesn’t mean it isn’t; so, apply the precautionary principle and say until there is evidence that it is safe let’s assume it is unsafe and advise abstinence.  What reason! What impeccable logic!
All of these public health campaigns are really predicated on a fear of death. But according to Professor Westendorp – a leading expert in human ageing and longevity – life expectancy is going up in the West faster than we can adjust to it. Every week we get an extra weekend of life-expectancy; every day we gain six hours: “The first person to live to 135 has already been born” he states (The Times, October 22nd 2015). Dementia, the bogeyman of the present, is also in significant decline according to Professor Westendorp. A large-scale population study in the UK reported a 30 per cent drop in the risk of getting dementia over the past 20 years. And heart disease and strokes are also on the decline. In the first half of the 20th century, half of the population died of cardiovascular disease; that has now dropped to a third and heart disease continues to fall.

The doom-mongers of the public health racket never give up though. As reported by Chris Snowdon on his blog site Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, a recent report by Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is concerned about the health aspects of cheese. There is a reason why pizza is such a successful food product. It contains an addictive substance.  Dr. Barnard believes cheese to be as addictive as morphine because it contains “casein-derived, morphine-like compounds” which become super-concentrated during the cheese-making process.  And so cheese might as well be called “dairy crack” he declares.

And, hot off the press, a World Health Organisation report has just been published that classifies processed meat as carcinogenic – alongside arsenic and asbestos. Less than one sausage a day increases your risk of developing cancer by almost a fifth.

I am utterly speechless!

Paul Chase

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