Fat chance of labour’s junk food ad ban bearing fruit

The real reasons behind childhood obesity are too tough for this mealy-mouthed government: it prefers the insubstantial soundbite

If Julius Caesar were alive and living in Britain today he would be a contented fellow, able confidently to roll up his sleeves and set about invading and murdering neighbouring peoples in a carefree sort of way. Why? Because we know that he never felt better than when he had about him men that were fat, and in modern Britannia, though we may lack a Mediterranean climate, olive groves and smoking volcanoes, we have an abundance of very fat men, and women too.

But do we rejoice in this surfeit? Casting an eye about us and spying bulging waistbands, vast and gently lolling buttocks, bosoms that put Nature’s ripe mellons to shame, and thighs that could haul a dray, do we lift our hearts and sing? No we do not, we fret and mope and yearn that we had about us folk with lean and hungry looks. And if we don’t feel like that, we damn well should. Why? Because the Government tells us so. Yes, those pinchbeck and dwarf Caesars who presume to rule us have decreed that fat is wrong and must be eradicated by whatever means possible. It is, they argue, unhealthy, and such is our feeble lassitude that we accept this impertinence. Our health ought properly to be no business but our own and certainly no business of the Government. But after decades of welfarism we meekly accept that if we don’t feel fit and well, someone, or something else, is to blame and it’s the Government’s job to put it right. So when the poltroons in office tell us it is wrong to be fat and they will have us thin, we utter not a whimper.

This complaisance extends to accepting the craziest nostrums and taking seriously the daftest suggestions. The Government is too important to do much thinking on its own and so appoints quangos to come up with ideas on its behalf. And quangos specialise in easy and plausible solutions to complex problems. The Prime Minister calls them eye-catching initiatives.

So the Food Standards Agency (FSA), a quango which like all others could disappear tomorrow without anyone noticing, calls for a full ban on television advertising of junk food before the 9pm watershed to protect children and make them thin. This notion is appealing to the Government because it is both eye-catching and a crackdown. That it will have no affect other than to restrict commercial freedom is unimportant. That too many children are strikingly obese is beyond question. The reasons are many and complex and controversial. Children, who are today known as kids, do not take sufficient exercise, nor are they properly fed. They are not properly fed for a number of reasons/ people no longer eat as families but graze and snack; almost all mothers go out to work and are too exhausted (and sometimes too disdainful) to cook meals (though paradoxically they all demand large and lavishly fitted kitchens); the greater affluence that double-income homes enjoy allows for free spending on crisps, snacks, hamburgers, fries, chocolate, sugary cereals and processed ready rubbish, which are both substitutes for proper eating and a means of assuaging parental guilt.

To tackle the deep-rooted transformation in the way people live their lives compared with earlier generations is beyond the power or the will of government (not least because it has assiduously fostered these changes), but eye-catching crackdowns, now you’re talking.

Banning TV advertising of junk food to cure child obesity is like banning spots to cure the measles. We have been here before. Outlawing cigarette advertising was going to save 3 million lives, or was that 2 million? Or 10 million? The figures are meaningless, so it doesn’t matter. It’s the illusion of action, of doing something, that counts. Has the FSA or the Government a clue as to how advertising influences overall consumption of snacks and confectionery? Any better idea, for instance, than the number of illegal immigrants who have disappeared into thin air or the number of convicted murderers and rapists who are on the loose?

No one denies that among the aims of advertising is to make people want to buy, or at any rate try, goods or services. But advertising does not, and cannot, make people buy. The decision is a matter of individual choice, and choosing what or what not to buy is among our most important freedoms. If children eat too much junk food that is because their parents allow them to, or cannot be bothered to stop them. Advertising is not a cause of obesity in children, it is not even a contributory factor, as we shall see after it is banned. What after that? A ban on eating junk food in public places, McDonald’s for instance?

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