It’s been a while since the medical profession has got onto its high horse about banning the promotion of fast food and soft drinks brands.
But now, sensing the increasing vulnerability of the coalition government, it’s charging straight for the breach.
The militant assault comes from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, an umbrella organisation which can count on the (at least passive) support of 200,000 doctors. It’s being directed by the academy’s vice-president Professor Terence Stephenson (left), something of a zealot in these matters.
Specifically, Stephenson wants:
A ban on brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sponsoring major sporting events such as the Olympics. Carling, sponsor of the Carling Cup, also comes in for some harsh words;
Prohibition on the use of celebrities or cartoon figures in promoting ‘unhealthy’ food and drink to children;
A safe area around schools, free from fast food outlets;
‘Fat taxes,’ as in Scandinavia, levied on such foods;
Much clearer labelling on the calories, salt, sugar and fat contained therein.
Same old, same old, you may say. And you would be right. This is the ‘Bannist Tendency’ making a not-very veiled attack on the Government’s proclaimed policy of collaborating with industry via so-called ‘responsibility deals,’ which emphasise self-regulatory restraint rather than expensive-to-police and often ineffectual red tape.
When I say “ineffectual”, I should qualify that. In the short term, the proposed bans may well have a debilitating effect on commerce without achieving concomitant success in combatting national obesity. Longer term the strategy is tried and tested, however. It amounts to demonising fast food and soft drinks in the same way the medical profession has managed to demonise smoking. At this very moment health secretary Andrew Lansley, the arch-proponent of industry ‘responsibility deals,’ is contemplating stripping the last vestiges of marketing support from the tobacco industry with a ban on branded packaging. That’s what, in a generation’s time perhaps, the medical profession would like to see happening to Big Food brands.
Reducing the amount of salt, fat and sugar in our diet is of course a commendable aim, and it is right that the medical profession – of all special interest groups – should embrace it. But is it also right to equate the variable impact of HSSFs on our health with the addictive and truly pernicious effects of smoking? There is a matter of degree here, which does not seem to be adequately reflected in the uncompromising messianic fervour of the medical profession. Or, rather, some of the zealots who seem to have hijacked it.
Stephenson himself is a case in point. He may be an eminent paediatrician, but he also harbours some eccentric views. Among them, that second hand smoke (from tobacco) is a significant contributor to cot deaths. He is also someone who clearly lives in a bubble blissfully sequestered from the inconvenient realities of commercial life. Here he is on the subject of football sponsorship:
“For adults, beer is a source of calories. I like going to a football match and drinking beer, but it’s the high profile sponsorship that means that every time we mention this trophy, we mention in the same words Carling Cup.” So, let’s ban it, eh? Personally, I’m all the way with Stephenson on renaming it the League Cup. Period. But I do wonder where all the extra money is going to come from if we prohibit the likes of Carling, Coca-Cola and (heavy heart, here) McDonald’s from investing in sports events.
Surely, a little more personal responsibility exercised over how many HSSFs we ingest at any one time, not to mention how much exercise we take, are more salutary – and certainly less puritanical – solutions to the national obesity problem?
And, if we’re going to consider banning any advertising at all, what about reviewing the wall of money Big Pharma spends on targeting the medical profession?
Now there’s an unhealthy relationship.