While lockdown restrictions are debated in the public forum in minute detail, the role of underlying risks to public health in accelerating those tragic numbers remains underappreciated.
Alongside age and pre-existing respiratory conditions like severe asthma, the most significant external factor which worsens coronavirus appears to be obesity.
It is no coincidence that Britain, where the numbers of people dying from Covid are so much higher than other European countries, also has one of the highest rates of obesity in the continent.
According to data from the World Health Organisation, the UK has a higher obesity rate than any country in the EU except for Malta. In Britain, more than one in four adults has a body mass index of more than 30, classifying them as obese.
The problem is so serious that obesity is now directly responsible for more deaths in England and Scotland than smoking. That was the conclusion of a startling study from the University of Glasgow which found that deaths attributed to obesity and excess body fat increased from 17.9 to 23.1 per cent between 2003 and 2017. Clearly, obesity is a health epidemic in the UK, and there is a legitimate policy demand for the Government to do something about it. But it’s imperative that we avoid the temptation to adopt ill-thought-out policies in a knee-jerk reaction.
We are already heading in the wrong direction. The Government’s junk food advertising ban, for example, is projected to remove an average of around 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – roughly the equivalent of half a Smartie. And that’s according to the Government’s own research into its policy.
It’s the same story with sin taxes. Ample evidence shows that all that is achieved by artificially bumping up the price tags of foods and drinks which are high in sugar or fat is making shopping trips more expensive unnecessarily for those who can least afford it, without any noteworthy impact on calorie consumption.
There is no reason for the Government to hamstring itself with these kinds of ineffectual, costly policies. Fascinating research in this area has produced plenty of innovative “nudge”-style policies.
In fact, last year, a plan to address impulse purchases of confectionery in supermarkets was reportedly being considered – until it was seemingly abandoned in favour of the much splashier advertising ban, at the behest of the fierce public health lobbying bodies.
The crux of the issue is the short-termism of government. We elect new representatives to Westminster every five years, so it is very difficult to hold ministers accountable for the long-term impacts of their decisions. Centralised policy is incapable of providing the tools we need to improve public health. All governments, by their very nature, can do is try to eliminate things they don’t like by slapping bans on them, drowning them in red tape or taxing them out of existence.
Each of those courses of action bears costs for consumers, lumps private enterprise with unnecessary burdens and constitutes a dramatically increased level of state interference in private affairs, all without actually resolving the issue at hand.
This contrast is even more pronounced at the present moment, when we are slowly edging towards a period of economic recovery. Now is not the time to be making life harder for businesses by fostering a much tougher regulatory environment, especially when those policy decisions don’t seem to have any notable public health benefits.
That’s why it is a much better idea for the state to intervene in these issues as infrequently as possible. When people are free to choose to change the way they live – perhaps with a little bit of nudging, but without any coercion – they are much more likely to keep those changes in place for good, to the benefit of the health of the nation.
That is in addition, of course, to the myriad other benefits of leaving these matters to the private sector and individual choice, such as the fact that any funds come from private pockets, rather than the coffers of the state. That way, Britain’s weight-loss programme can be voluntary and free, rather than obligatory and expensive.
Jason Reed is the UK liaison at Young Voices and a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center.
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