The food nannies are let loose

Dehumanizing market decisions is key to patronizing nanny-state policies.

In a report published in The Lancet at the end of January, lead author Boyd Swinburn makes the case for greater government intervention in order to reduce the public health effects of malnutrition.

The 56-page report is a long list of known policy prescriptions to increase public health, including increased taxation and reduced means of marketing. Most of all, the researchers seem very worried that Big Food is meddling in the debate around nutrition and believe that the industry is, indeed, unilaterally organizing the global “syndemic,” as they call it.

Take this extract:

Some government measures, including regulations for the marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products to children, front-of-pack warning labels, fiscal policies such as soda taxes, and consumer protection laws can help to constrain this supply-driven consumption of unhealthy foods.

Did you notice the term “supply-driven?” This implies that the consumption of unhealthy food isn’t the result of actual market demand, but rather that of clever marketing wherein consumers are seen as mindless drones under the influence of Big Food, not as individuals.

The reason is clear: Were you to accept that people make responsible individual choices, then you couldn’t make the argument that large-scale government intervention is necessary as a measure of protection. Dehumanizing market decisions is key to patronizing nanny-state policies.

The report is a lengthy but worthwhile read if you’re interested in a first-hand look at the sinister mindset of public health policy advocates. We are familiar with the usual measures of heavily regulated packaging, higher taxation, and constant government campaigns regarding food. The report, however, takes it a step further.

The researchers also recognize that some of their measures will fail and therefore claim that some efforts need to be made by individuals through government guidance. This is demonstrated in the desire to see these ideas proliferate through individuals as food activists. This is how they describe the opportunity:

People live in networks of influence. Their influence is greatest at the micro level with family and social circles, but people also interact in and influence many settings— e.g. workplaces, schools, universities, shops, recreational settings, villages, and local communities. Even at the macro level, being a consumer, using mass media, or working in government or other macro systems provides an opportunity to create influence.

There is nothing wrong with people arguing for change at the personal/family level. What is disconcerting is that these authors will be key actors in advising public policymakers.

Imagine the scenario: people are briefed by government bureaucrats on how to convince their friends and family to sign up to become “food ambassadors,” or whatever they would be called, leading to a dystopian and intrusive interference with people’s personal choices.

One of the prescriptions is also that there should be an international conference that can assess the necessity and effectiveness of new policies.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is the first global health treaty enacted by the World Health Organization (WHO). It has been ratified by 181 countries and forms the basis of a number of national laws across the globe, including tobacco taxes, advertising restrictions, and plain cigarette packaging.

Each biannual meeting is dominated by various health ministries and anti-tobacco organizations like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Framework Convention Alliance, which are not only granted “observer status” but also intervene in the large plenary debates and use their platform to shame the delegates of any country that doesn’t adopt a prohibitionist attitude toward tobacco.

The FCTC excludes media organizations and NGOs it deems unhelpful from its meetings and discusses its policy recommendations for billions of people behind closed doors. The fact that this is all very expensive and taxpayer-funded should go without saying.

Presumably, only a minority of readers here are smokers and could, therefore, shrug off this particular example. However, the FCTC is constantly used as an example of how to regulate myriad other areas of consumption, as well. An FCTC for food would come up with similarly draconian measures as those for tobacco: increased sin taxes, decreased access, and plain-packaged labeling.

If you don’t believe it, check out this tweet from public health nutritionist Jennifer Browne (which has since been deleted as a result of backlash):

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Brace for expensive food and sterile supermarkets if these people get their way.

If you don’t defend the liberty of smokers, drinkers, and gamblers, regardless of how repulsive you may find their life choices on a personal level, then you’re condemned to be next. Liberty and consumer choice are best defended if done consistently. That’s because the argument for a food FCTC will be: “When we did it for tobacco, you agreed with the same principles of taxation, limited access, and banned branding.” Will you say that “this is different”? How so, exactly?

Hamburgers aren’t exactly the healthiest of all nutritional options, yet we still eat them. It’s because we recognize that some vices aren’t good for us, but we choose the associated risks of consumption over the prospect of never enjoying anything we eat. This is not to say that vegetarian diets cannot be tasty; simply that they just aren’t for everyone. Respecting individuals’ choices without elevating our own to a pretended higher moral standard is what it means to live in a free society.

Live and let live. It’s really not that hard.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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