Should we admit that Nanny knows best?

It's for your own good, man.

Growing up we are told to 'eat our greens', later we are exhorted to get our '5 a day' and now the government has extended its reach to prevent us smoking or drinking to excess.  Meddling in our private lives has become the norm not the exception.   Recent research shows that the UK is no. 3 in a ranking of European countries based on 'nanny state' interventions in the consumption of alcohol and freedom to smoke.  The only countries where Mary Poppins wields more sway are Finland and Sweden with their extremely high taxes on alcohol and stringent smoking bans.  Who would have thought that the more 'liberal' attitudes are in fact in Germany and the Czech republic?

There is no doubt that these rules and regulations are made for the best of reasons.  As a nation we are strangely proud of our guilty pleasures and seem unable to wean ourselves from our cravings for sugar, fat, and booze as we waddle towards an early grave.  But do the high taxes on wine and cigarettes in the UK result in a healthier population?  The correlation is not clear.  The smoking ban in public places has reduced heart attack rates by 42% but smoking-related conditions still cost the NHS an astonishing £2 billion a year.  The huge pressure on the NHS is also exacerbated by other lifestyle choices.  Alcohol related problems cost £2.8 billion and an incredible £6 billion is spent on conditions related to being overweight or obese.  Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has described how obesity is like "a slow-motion car crash... If as a nation we keep piling on the pounds around the waistline, we’ll be piling on the pounds in terms of future taxes needed just to keep the NHS afloat.” 

It is not just health professionals who are trying to educate the public.  The crusading chef Jamie Oliver has launched a plan to combat childhood obesity which includes a tax on sugary drinks, mandatory targets for sugar reduction in food and drink and advertising restrictions for 'junk' foods.  The government's recent announcement of a tax on sugary soft drinks, which will start in 2018, is an indication that the manufacturers will be under a lot more pressure to take this issue seriously.  Nicola Mallard, a consumer industry analyst at Investec, said the threat of the tax would accelerate drinks companies’ efforts to reduce sugar in their products. In the past four years there has been an average 11% reduction in calories from soft drinks, according to the British Soft Drink Association, so things are moving in the right direction.

Naturally the big players in the industry are pointing out that the tax will not necessarily have the desired effect of changing consumer behaviour and they may have a point.  In France, sales of soft drinks fell by 3% in the year following the introduction of the 2p/330ml price rise, but stabilised as consumers got used to higher prices.  In Mexico a sugar tax on fizzy drinks cut sales by 12% but as Coca-Cola’s Den Hollander said: “If the objective is to reduce calorie intake on a daily basis then the example in Mexico shows it doesn’t work.” He said Mexico’s tax on sugar drinks, introduced in 2014, had only reduced average intake by six calories a day.

If we can agree that Nanny has the right idea, what are the best ways to change consumer behaviour and shock us out of our sugar / fat / booze addiction?  In the food arena, the 'nudges' by government and action groups to reduce salt and hydrogenated oils in products has seen some success.  Salt consumption has been reduced by 15% over the last decade primarily as food manufacturers have reformulated products.  But overall these have not resulted in the dramatic step changes which are necessary.  

The jury is still out on e-cigarettes but this seems one area where innovation has successfully modified behaviour.  Disruptive innovation rather than just 'tweaks' is also what is needed in the food and drink industry.  So perhaps a sugar tax, although in many ways illiberal and regressive will be the trigger which will force big business to become more creative.  As a result, the next generation will be eating and drinking products made with new ingredients which are healthier and contain fewer calories. It is true that necessity is the mother of invention - so Nanny is right, although not in the way she may have thought.