Food Policy

Will 'Frenzied Hectoring' by British Food Nannies Never End?

British health officials are ready to tax tasty food out off shelves.


In December, England's chief medical officer, Sally Davies, urged the nation to adopt still more "taxes on unhealthy food high in sugar and salt." This was just months after England's soda tax took hold.

"Those sectors that damage health must pay for their harm or subsidise healthier choices," Davies says in a report that suggests the tax money should be used to underwrite purchases of fruits and vegetables.

Davies's argument came just days after details of a draft British government proposal to institute byzantine calorie restrictions on a variety of foods.

"Calorie limits will be imposed on thousands of foods sold in supermarkets and restaurants in a bid to combat obesity," The Telegraph reported on Christmas day. "Draft proposals seen by The Telegraph set out detailed caps for ready meals, sandwiches[,] and even portions of vegetables served across the country."

The British government also took the Christmas season as an opportunity to share what Express writer Leo McKinstry said amounted to "guidance on how to reduce the size of the main Christmas meal, with nannying advice on the number of turkey slices and roast potatoes that is nutritionally acceptable." (McKinstry said these "state-appointed killjoys" viewed the holiday season as little more than "an opportunity for yet more frenzied hectoring.")

Taken as a whole, these government proposals are intended, supporters argue, to combat rising levels of obesity. Proponents suggest we need government to tell us what and how to eat because we just can't help ourselves.

Sally Davies. Credit Rob Pinney/ZUMA Press/Newscom

"The free-will question needs turning on its head," wrote Sonia Sodha in The Guardian last month. What does Sodha's upside-down willpower argument look like?

"There's no free choice about the [food] industry reshaping our tastes to benefit its profit margins without us even realizing," writes Sodha, who goes on to suggest that "some" "libertarians" "perhaps" share "a disdain for people just too greedy to leave some of their dinner on their plate." (I was taught to clean my plate and to avoid straw man arguments.)

Critics of the British government's plans aren't taking the proposals sitting down.

Telegraph writer Tom Harris says Davies, Britain's chief medical officer, who proudly dubbed herself "chief nanny," is "'chief nanny' of a state that draws uniquely smug pleasure from lecturing the poor."

Spiked's Rob Lyons warns of the consequences of Britain's nanny state coming after your booze, soda, and chocolates.

"The real victim has been our ability to choose what we want to drink for ourselves—all to satisfy the health zealots, while achieving nothing," he writes.

If Britain's waistlines have become bloated, so too, critics note, have the salaries of those who've watched those waistlines expand under their watch. The Nanny State Rich List 2018, a damning new report from the TaxPayers' Alliance, a British nonprofit watchdog, found hundreds of public health officials across the country earned six-figure salaries. That includes two leading health agency staffers who earned salaries in excess of more than $375,000 last year.

If it sounds to you like Great Britain is in the midst of a grand debate over food and the nanny state, you're right. But these debates are neither new nor uniquely British.

I've studied such policies for years and found evidence of their success to be lacking. Denmark repealed its ineffective fat tax. New York City's soda ban was overturned by a court. Minneapolis's plans to force corner stores to sell more fruits and vegetables backfired. Los Angeles's ban on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles failed to make people healthier.

Will Britain's plans to regulate the country to better eating habits and health succeed? It sure doesn't seem likely.

Take those plans to restrict calories in any given meal sold. "You can just buy more food," Scott Shackford wrote last week. He's right, of course. It's that simple. And yet something tells me some overpaid public health official in Britain is burning the midnight oil right now trying to figure out a way to close that loophole.