Flat White

Big Public Health’s tobacco tactics haven’t worked with smoking. Why should they work with obesity?

20 July 2021

4:19 PM

20 July 2021

4:19 PM

I’m not one for personal criticism, even dumb, socialist, hypocritical, anti-everything Greens. But if I were, I would put public health bureaucrats and their cheerleaders in the medical profession at the top of my list. 

The public health industry comprises people who are adamant we all want to live forever. It also assumes that people require their guidance to do this because, unlike them, we are incapable of making the right choices for ourselves. We must be nudged, cajoled, regulated, taxed and supervised to ensure we get it right.     

The Covid pandemic has exposed this in stark terms. Mask mandates, lockdowns, quarantine and border closures, while mostly authorised by spineless politicians, are attributable to the public health people behind them. All instead of choosing for ourselves how to respond to a disease with a very low fatality rate.  

Having succeeded far beyond their expectations, the industry is now returning to more longstanding concerns – that we are enjoying ourselves in an unapproved manner.  

The latest proposal is to address the epidemic of obesity through the regulation of advertising and labelling. It suggests adding mandatory health warnings on junk food, limiting access to fast-food restaurants, mandating the health star rating system, and restricting junk food from being advertised on public transport and daytime television. A tax on sugary items is also proposed. 

The underlying assumption is that similar measures have reduced tobacco consumption and will therefore work with food, particularly food that they don’t believe we should be eating.  

It seems to me that public health people have certain relevant characteristics. One is a lack of personal skills – public health doctors prefer people in the abstract rather than one on one. It makes it easier to treat them like children.  

Another is that they tend to be oblivious to data that contradicts their worldview. A prime example is the fact that the measures adopted to reduce tobacco consumption have actually failed to do so, yet they are continually used as a model to be applied elsewhere.  

For example, the 2019 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare National Drug Strategy Household Survey showed that, prior to 2012, the percentage of daily smokers aged 14+ had been steadily declining at a rate of 0.46% per year for over 20 years. When plain packaging and higher taxes were introduced, the rate of decline slowed to just 0.26% and has remained on this flattened trajectory ever since. Moreover, the proportion of smokers planning to quit has not changed; 3 in 10 smokers have no interest in giving up smoking, the same percentage (30%) as in 2010.  

What has changed is the illegal tobacco market, now accounting for 20.7% of all tobacco consumed in Australia, according to the latest KPMG survey. The public health industry never mentions the $3.4 billion in lost taxes. 

In Britain, the public health industry has convinced PM Boris Johnson to ban junk food advertising on TV before 9.00 pm and a total ban online. Apart from the public health industry, nobody really knows what is ‘junk food’. Normal people would not regard the kind of products that will be banned from advertising as unhealthy or junk.  

And because public health takes an abstract view of people, it is indifferent to the fact that there are individuals who will bear the cost, from those employed by corporations to the local bakery, wedding cake maker and sweet shop.  

The UK has had other restrictions on food for some time, all derived from tobacco control. Yet obesity rates are higher than ever, and excess body fat has been responsible for more deaths than smoking every year since 2014, with over a million hospital admissions for obesity-related treatment in England in the year leading up to the pandemic. 

Bans on advertising, health warnings on packets and gratuitous lifestyle taxes have been tried and tested. They do not work. And yet, after thirty years, the public health industry has nothing new to add to the policy debate. Indeed, it is part of the problem rather than the solution.  

Those who run public health and claim to be acting in our best interests need to wake up. Obesity is shaping up to be our next pandemic. If we continue down this road, it might be even more damaging to our civil liberties than the last one. But the omens are not good – importing the failed tobacco measures is a recipe for failure. 

David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats. 

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