Morgan Schondelmeier is Head of External Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.
Yesterday the Government pushed forward with its overbearing and unscientific nanny-state agenda. It has decided to ban “junk food” advertisements online and before 9pm on television. This policy lacks substantial evidence, is incredibly damaging for countless industries, and treats adults like children.
But can we be all that surprised? Are we shocked that this Government, and the ones been and gone, are infringing on our rights to see, hear, and taste yet again? This policy is just another in a long line of paternalistic nonsense that stems from the constant need for politicians to be seen to be doing something. Anything at all, really, no matter how damaging.
And these policies are damaging. They’re purporting to be “for the greater good”, masquerading as necessary interventions to protect us from whatever damage we would certainly do to ourselves if we didn’t have the guiding hand of the state. But what we’re really encountering are policies which will undoubtedly do more damage than they purport to fix. Even the Government’s own cost-benefit analyses show this.
Take the ban on “junk food”. The ban, spurred on by the Prime Minister’s own health journey (note: he managed to lose weight by taking personal initiative, not through government-backed punitive measures), claims to target childhood obesity by removing the “temptation” posed by seeing adverts for “junk food”.
You may note my repeated use of quotations around “junk food”. That’s because the category, officially known as high fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS), doesn’t just include sweets and crisps but countless other foods, including many British dietary staples. The Government has made some concessions on this front, generously allowing things like avocado and olive oil to still be seen on our screens, but far too many products still fall under this ban, like favourites fish and chips, sausage rolls and scones and jam.
The Government’s impact assessment found that banning this advertising would only reduce around 2.7 calories per day from a child’s diet. Even this claim is highly speculative. It is based on experiments in which children are shown television advertisements and immediately offered copious quantities of food. It’s hardly a surprise that they consume some of the food on offer. The Government’s impact assessment states that these studies “may lack generalisability to real world conditions e.g. where children have more limited access to unlimited HFSS food during and immediately after HFSS advertising exposure.”
The Government also admits that there is zero evidence, even of the speculative type mentioned above, to suggest that banning online advertising has any impact. It is also not known whether it will reduce lifetime calorie consumption or whether there will be calorie substitution effects (i.e. children eating more at meal times). The evidence also suggests that advertisement bans do not limit adult consumption. At all turns, the Government’s own research proves that this plan has no scientific backing.
So what are we sacrificing in order to knock off 2.7 calories per child per day? Considering the ban hits not just fast food restaurants but also producers and consumers of goods and the platforms which rely on advertising revenue, the Government estimates a loss of £1.5 billion from broadcasters, £3.5 billion from online platforms, £550 million from ad agencies and £659 million from product makers. This doesn’t even factor in the cost to consumer welfare, including for adults, from not being able to see adverts for products, consume what they want and get the best value.
We have seen it time and time again, with this misguided policy and countless other paternalistic interventions: minimum alcohol pricing doesn’t decrease consumption, but increases costs for the poorest; gambling bans show little evidence of curbing problem gambling but slash useful tax revenues; hesitancy to accept vaping or heated tobacco only prolongs the damage done by smoking; and banning by-one-get-one ready meals makes it harder for families to feed themselves.
At every turn, this Government puts forth unscientific, regressive, and infantilising policies under the guise of public health. This highly interventionist mindset is hardly a Conservative approach.
We should demand more from our policymakers. Yes, we want to live in a happier, healthier, more prosperous society –– and supporters of these policies genuinely think they will help us achieve that goal. But the evidence always points elsewhere. The benefits do not outweigh the costs. The least we should be able to expect are policies which are thoroughly researched, robustly challenged, and backed by evidence. Right now, all we’re getting are back of the napkin calculations drawn up at a lunch paid for by lobbyists.