Thursday 23 November 2023

A confederation of wowsers

The Guardian reports on research that has found that British firms are earning a staggering £52.7bn a year from “smoking, excess drinking and junk food”.
…they calculated that 28.8% of all food bought by UK households is unhealthy because it breaches government dietary guidelines for fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Those sales together earn the food industry £34.2bn.

Similarly, they found that 43.4% of all alcohol consumed in the UK is drunk by people exceeding the government’s safe drinking guidelines of 14 units a week, and is thus potentially harmful. The alcohol industry makes £11.2bn from this consumption. And all of the tobacco industry’s £7.3bn annual revenue is from sales of products that are known to kill half of the people who use them, they found.

“These findings show that these health-harming industries are making obscene amounts of money from selling us products that are making us ill,” said Hazel Cheeseman, Ash’s deputy chief executive.

One hopes that Hazel is eating healthy low-fat cheese, not the kind you’re not allowed to advertise on the Tube. So who has commissioned this report? Oh, it’s the usual suspects. And you can’t help thinking “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
The research was undertaken by the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) in conjunction with Landman Economics.
It’s significant that, on top of the £52.7 bn going to companies, the government is raking in £28.8 bn through VAT and duties, making them a major source of revenue. And it is disingenuous to say that companies are “earning” £52.7 bn, as that is the figure for total sales revenue. The actual profit made on these products will be far less.

When it comes to smoking, these analyses always fail to acknowledge that, while it undoubtedly carries health risks, many people genuinely enjoy it, so it is no different in principle from many other so-called vices. And aren’t the government doing enough already to clamp down on it, by increasing the rate of duty every year by above the rate of inflation, and introducing a system of creeping prohibition that will increase the legal purchase age by one year every year?

The “safe drinking” guidelines have been repeatedly ratcheted down in recent years, turning more and more people into “problem drinkers” without anything actually changing. And, as with all policies that are supposed to address the dangers of alcohol, the proposed measures will also end up clobbering moderate consumers.

As I wrote earlier in the year, the concept of ultra-processed food is something that is pretty much entirely made up. It draws the net so widely that it ends up demonising pretty much any food item that has seen the inside of a factory, regardless of its actual recipe or nutritional content. It also has to be remembered that there is no such thing as unhealthy food, only unhealthy diets. Should people not be allowed the occasional indulgent treat?

The measures proposed to deal with these issues will inevitably involve more restrictions and higher taxation, exactly what people need at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet. The whole thing comes across as a crusade against poor people having any kind of pleasure. It is also profoundly patronising, denying people any agency in their own lives, and portraying them as unwilling dupes. Does it never occur to the campaigners that these companies are selling products that people actually want to buy?

Those who insisted at the time of the smoking ban than alcohol was different should take note of the three groups who have come together to produce this report. As far as the public health lobby are concerned, smoking, alcohol and “junk food” are three sides of the same coin, and having the temerity to make a profit from any of them is engaging in a “toxic trade”.

And, of course, as usually happens, the article is illustrated by a picture of people drinking pints of cask beer in a pub garden…

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