Thursday 31 March 2016


OK, I hold my hands up – I did watch ‘Mary Poppins’ in 1964 – but I was only 15 years-old! But George Osborne seems to have watched it more recently if the announcement of a sugar levy in his Budget is anything to go by. But if he hoped the sugar levy would distract from his cuts to benefits for the disabled, then the resignation of Iain Duncan-Smith a couple of days later scuppered that one. As Harold Wilson put it: “A week is a long time in politics.”

But what are we to make of the sugar levy? Is this a genuine attempt to make us healthier, or just another cynical ploy to appease a noisy campaign group, whilst distracting us from the cuts? What is interesting is how the management of expectations has kicked-in since the measure was announced. Before the Budget Jamie Oliver was claiming that a sugar tax would be a “game changer”; then after the announcement, in a moment of euphoria that must have been almost like a sugar-rush, he proclaimed that the measure would “send ripples around the world”. Then he came down to earth with a bump and said it was just a “symbolic slap” for the soft drinks’ industry. From game-changer to symbolic slap whilst hardly pausing to take breath.

The campaign group Action on Sugar is naturally delighted, although they have always said that it is just a “useful first step”. And this is what concerns me most: that these types of policy proposals are always presented to us by campaigners in the media as isolated measures. The truth is they are door-openers to much wider measures that will see state regulation of the food chain and mass product reformulation. If the problem, as presented to us, is that the incidence of obesity at the population level is too high - something like a third of the adult population are said to be obese - then are we seriously supposed to believe that a sugar levy that will raise the price of a can of pop from 69 pence to 77 pence will lead to a measurable reduction in population levels of obesity? Because if not, why introduce it?

Here we come back to the “useful first step” scenario. Certainly a levy that will raise £520 million in its first year will be a useful first step for a government desperate to fill an £18 billion hole, but what will the next steps be? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess, because Action on Sugar have, at the request of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, provided some helpful suggestions. Here they are:

  • Reduce added sugars by 40 per cent by 2020 by reformulating foods (a similar  rogramme to salt).
  • Reduce fat in ultra-processed foods, particularly saturated fat – 15 per cent reduction by 2020.
  • Cease all forms of marketing of ultra-processed, unhealthy foods and drinks to children.
  • Disassociate physical activity with obesity via banning junk food sports sponsorships.
  • Limit the availability of ultra-processed foods and sweetened soft drinks as well as reducing portion size.
  • Incentivise healthier food and discourage drinking of soft drinks by planning to introduce a sugar tax.
  • Remove responsibility for nutrition from the Department of Health and return it back to an independent agency.

Well, number 6 is in the bag, so watch this space.

At the heart of all these proposals is the implicit belief that government must regulate because consumers are either too dumb to make their “sensible choices”, or else they are hopelessly addicted to products that have been deliberately spiked with sugar, salt and fat – ingredients that titillate the taste buds – and that ‘Big Food’ has addiction as a core part of its strategy. This fantasy of corporate coercion is at the heart of ‘healthism’ – the ideology of ‘the health of the nation.’

In fact there is no market failure in relation to sugary drinks – all the major producers sell sugar-free, low carb and calorie-free versions – Coke Zero and Diet Coke are just two examples that come to mind. But that isn’t enough for the healthist zealots. ‘Aspartame’, which is used as a sugar-substitute in many of these sugar-free alternatives, is then pilloried as being even worse for your health by a series of scare stories which have precious little to do with science. Read “Aspartame – the truth” on the NHS Choices website if you don’t believe me.

The puritanical nature of the sugar-phobes is thus plain for all to see. They won’t be satisfied until all food is bland, tasteless and “good for your health.” The fact is that many of the things that give us pleasure involve consumption. And many of these things are bad for us – at least if consumed to excess. But we don’t have to make a zero-sum choice between maximising pleasure or maximising health, most people seek a balance summed up by the old maxim “A Little Bit of What You fancy Does You Good, but Everything in Moderation.” I’d rather decide for myself what those trade-offs should be, I don’t need the state to do it for me.

Paul Chase

Thursday 17 March 2016


You may not have heard of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (Alcohol Limits) (Amendment Bill), but it was a private members Bill introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, a Labour peer. The effect of this amendment, had it been introduced, would have been to lower the drink drive limit from 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood to 30 milligrams – which is already the drink drive limit in Scotland. In Scotland this change has had a devastating effect on pubs, and particularly pubs in rural areas. The Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) has stated that the introduction of this measure has been “catastrophic” for pubs, with people who might have stopped-off for a pint on the way home from work now deciding not to do so.

In a debate in the House of Lords on the 11th March a number of comments were made that are worthy of note. Lord Rae, also a labour peer, had this to say:

The Scottish licensed catering association (sic) has said that the introduction of that measure has been “catastrophic” for the industry. In other words, drinking as a whole has gone down—no one has mentioned that effect of the measure—quite apart from any effect on accidents on the roads. When the prohibition on smoking in public places came in, it reduced the prevalence of heart disease. Heart attacks, for instance, came down measurably as a result of that step. Therefore, small measures such as the one we are discussing will gradually reduce the consumption of alcohol, which, when used excessively, is very harmful, as we all know.”

Now, what is wrong with this statement? Well, just about everything. Firstly, the fact that consumption in pubs has fallen as a result of the change to the drink-drive limit does not prove that alcohol consumption as a whole has fallen. What we know is that there is a long-term trend away from drinking in pubs and bars and towards drinking at home, where the measures that people pour for themselves are generally much larger than they those served in a pub. Lowering the drink-drive limit can only serve to accelerate that trend. Secondly, a measure that is designed to reduce population levels of alcohol consumption shouldn’t be smuggled in as a measure to reduce drink-driving. Thirdly, there is no evidence that the reduction in the limit in Scotland has reduced drink-drive deaths or injuries. Certainly, as the government peer Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon pointed out:

It is also important to note that the penalties for drink-driving in England and Wales are more severe than in other countries, and despite the majority of these other countries having lower alcohol limits, they do not have a better record on reducing drink-drive casualties. The Government therefore maintain our position that lowering the limit in itself is not going to change people’s behaviour and would not be the best use of resources to improve safety on our roads at this time.”

Well said sir! But Lord Rae then goes on to cite the smoking ban as having directly led to a reduction in the prevalence of heart disease and a measurable reduction in heart attacks; his point being that small changes can have big effects which are a kind of bonus to the effects originally intended. Only one problem, the smoking ban has had absolutely no effect on the prevalence of heart disease or the incidence of heart attacks.

Running up the white flag of surrender, the last word in this debate went to Lord Brooke, the author of the amendment:

I hope that the many individuals, organisations and members of the public who have supported me — I express my public gratitude to them — and who are in favour of this measure will continue to put pressure on the Government to bring about a change which will be in the best interests of all concerned, other than, perhaps, the drinks and hospitality industry.”

Well perish the thought that we should even consider the interests of the drinks and hospitality industry – after all they just create wealth and jobs and generate taxes so these ill-informed, unelected and unaccountable jobsworths can meddle in things they don’t understand. But then again, it was the Lords that rejected nationalisation of pubs in 1908. Well at least they got one thing right in the last hundred years!

Friday 4 March 2016


Back in 2011 I wrote a piece for Propel titled “Boris Bashes Bingers”, in which I outlined a scheme put forward by London Mayor Boris Johnson whereby drunken offenders would be subject to “sobriety orders”, and would have to report to police stations twice a day for sobriety tests to ensure their compliance. The government quite rightly refused to finance this scheme on the grounds of practicality, but Boris came back with a high-tech solution from America: a “sobriety bracelet scheme” for those convicted of serious drink-related offences who might otherwise have been sent to prison. 

I expressed back then my reservations about this scheme, but then heard nothing more about it, and assumed it had either died a death or been trialled and found wanting. But not a bit of it! The scheme has been trialled in south London and two other areas – Cheshire and Northamptonshire. It works like this: 

On conviction for a drink-related offence the Court orders a community sentence, but imposes a “sobriety condition”; the offender must abstain from drinking alcohol for 120 days – down from the six months that was originally envisaged.  To enforce this, the offender is fitted with an ankle bracelet that can detect alcohol by measuring air and perspiration emissions from the skin every 30 minutes. Blood alcohol levels as low as 0.02% can apparently be detected, and the bracelets can tell when the alcohol was consumed and then electronically transmit that information to a monitoring station. The police are then informed that the offender has broken his “sobriety condition” and can arrest him and bring him before the court.

Boris Johnson has hailed the trial of this scheme as a success: “Sobriety tags have proved a fantastic success in helping offenders across south London to stay off the booze and avoid the circumstances under which they might reoffend.” Apparently 91% of the tagged offenders complied with the sobriety order and stayed off the booze for 120 days. This compares with only 61% of offenders who complied with traditional community service orders for alcohol-related offences. 

Point proved? Not quite. Only 113 offenders were put on these tags during the 12-month trial and 9 breached the condition, leaving 104 who complied. A good result for a very small sample of people who, I suspect, were specially selected as “suitable cases for treatment”. The 61% success rate (or 39% failure rate if you prefer) for those offenders sentenced to other forms of community order is clearly a percentage of a much larger number. I can’t discover what that number is, but Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, stated recently that 80% of offences committed in London were related to alcohol. That would be at least 588,821 recorded offences then, if you believe this statement, which personally I don’t. Just what does “related to alcohol” mean?

This is a classic example of how politicians desperate for positive headlines work: hail as a “fantastic success” a scheme involving a small number of people specially selected as suitable cases for treatment, and then make an invalid comparison with a much larger group of people which represents the generality of offenders who haven’t been selected – and fail to mention that! We can tell nothing form this scheme except how base the motives of politicians are!

I am very much in favour of people being held responsible for their own misbehaviour, rather than ever-greater server liability, but I think we need to put sobriety bracelets into the context of the other measures supported by police and others for the control of the night-time economy: breathalyser tests carried out by door supervisors, ID scanners and potentially drug detection dogs. Whilst acknowledging that drunkenness and alcohol-related crime – howsoever defined – is a serious problem, it is a serious problem that all the crime surveys say is declining, so I don’t feel there is a pressing need to turn our city centres into leisure ghettos or our venues into fortresses. I want to see alcohol-related domestic violence reduced. But we surely need to incentivise people to drink out of home rather than at home if we want to achieve that.

It’s not difficult to imagine a development of this technology so that it could be applied to the operation of individual licensed premises. I can imagine the Government empowering licensing authorities to require premises in the night-time economy to provide a bracelet to every customer on a Friday and Saturday night. If the customer consumes more than, say, four units of alcohol, this is electronically communicated to a unit behind the bar, the bracelet illuminates and the customer has to leave. It’s the logical next step if you’re asking door supervisors to test for sobriety on entry. But surely I’m being paranoid, right? Surely no government is going to regulate the tick-and-tock of individual behaviour in this way? That’s precisely what people said when the smoking ban was first mooted. Watch this space.