Friday 26 August 2016

The British art of compromise

Joe Gormley, the old miners’ leader, once said: “When you negotiate wi’ employer, we start over here (gestures left), and employer starts over there (gestures right) and then we walk towards each other. The trick is to walk slower than them beggars!”

The implicit assumption of Gormley’s view of negotiation is that reasonable people in conflict will always find an accommodation; a middle ground; be able to split the difference. This appears to be wishful thinking when it comes to the conflict between the food and drinks industries and so-called “public health”. Recent developments in relation to the childhood obesity strategy and the sugar tax, and an apparent softening of the rhetoric in relation to the new low-risk drinking guidelines illustrate this perfectly.

Sugar and spice
In the past week it appears the government’s childhood obesity strategy has been watered down – to the evident outrage of campaigners for whom any compromise is tantamount to a sell-out. The sugar levy remains but as a tax on fizzy drinks producers, rather than retailers. It would have been hard for the government to renege on this because it’s a revenue-raiser announced in the budget, and they’ve pledged to spend the money on school sports. But most of the other measures demanded by “public health” campaigners – regulation to force mass reformulation of products to reduce sugar, salt and fat content; reductions of so-called junk food advertising directed at children; and to limit supermarket promotions on “unhealthy foods” have all been left out of the government’s strategy.

Instead, the government has set out a voluntary approach – for example, asking producers to reduce sugar content by 20% over five years – with the implicit threat of regulation if they don’t. This is similar to Andrew Lansley’s “industry responsibility deal”, in which drinks producers promised and succeeded in removing a billion units of alcohol from the market. In fact they removed 1.2 billion units – and ahead of time. But health zealots hate private sector solutions to public health problems and have constantly tried to say this initiative didn’t work. Nothing but regulations and bans ever work for them.

Predictably, Jamie Oliver, who campaigned for a wide range of coercive regulatory measures to combat the “obesity epidemic”, was said to be “in shock” at this government sell-out to “Big Food”. Equally predictably, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes and parliamentary nanny in chief, was appalled by this watering-down process. Perhaps she needs to understand that, unlike her, prime minister Theresa May might just turn out to be a conservative. Certainly May seems to have an instinctive dislike of nanny state measures and is disinclined to view the food and drinks producers as capitalist bad-guys intent on the mass promotion of industrial disease.

For “public health”, Big Food is intent on hooking people on “unhealthy foods” by adding “addictive ingredients” such as sugar and salt. It’s all a conspiracy you see. So, no kind of compromise is ever going to appease them.

No safe level of drinking
An apparent softening of the official line on the new, “low-risk” drinking guidelines published by the chief medical officers of health in March this year has also been reported in the press. While the unisex drinking guideline of 14 units a week remains, along with the “there is no safe level of (alcohol) drinking” mantra, the government is keen to damp down the rhetoric. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt will “give context about not preventing people from enjoying a drink” and say that while there is no totally safe limit of alcohol consumption, the risk is no higher than other everyday activities such as driving a car. Rhetorically this is a long way from CMO Dame Sally Davies’ claim that she thinks of the increased risk of cancer every time she reaches for a glass of wine.

The government seems to have accepted that the science underpinning the new guidelines is correct and the message just needs to be spun differently. But the science isn’t correct and the government should instigate an independent review and a call for evidence. Such a move would probably lead to Dame Sally Davies’ resignation, and the government clearly doesn’t want to be at the centre of another row where they are depicted as being on the side of “Big Alcohol”. The drinks industry nevertheless points out that the government champions British exports of products such as Scotch whisky abroad, while condemning alcohol as a health risk at home.

We are a long way from Joe Gormley’s vision of warring parties walking towards each other. Instead, in relation to the obesity strategy and the softening of the rhetoric around the drinking guidelines, we have that most British of solutions: a government compromise that pleases no one.

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