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Away from temptation

Private firms cannot be trusted to lead the obesity fight

There is one British demographic above reproach in its indulgence of a sweet tooth. Children, we accept, lack the kind of self-control to be trusted in front of a fridge full of fizzy drinks and juice. Government powers are increasingly invoked to protect them from advertising for the kind of sugary products that lead to tooth decay, hyperactivity, and cheeks a little over-chubby.

The latest advice from health professionals, following a report from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), asks parents to ban fruit juice from the dinner table – replacing it with water. This is a sensible idea, no doubt, but obesity troubles mum and dad too – two-thirds of Britain’s population are classed as overweight – and the question remains: should the Government turn “nanny” for an adult population that is glugging and chomping its way towards a condition that places a costly burden on health services, and whittles away at productivity?

In some places, the dividing line between adult and child is no clear binary. All the wisdom that age brings can be useless against the pull of sugary snacks, which stimulate the same area of the brain as drugs and opioids. The basic tenet of the libertarian case against state mollycoddling – that we are in full control of our appetites – has been undermined by recent studies. So it will take more than “better choices” to reach the SACN’s target of a 50 per cent reduction in the amount of added sugars consumed by the adult population. One can of fizzy drink, under the new guidelines, would hit that limit. So far, the Coalition has trusted to a Responsibility Deal with private manufacturers of sugary and fatty products to lead Britain away from the XL aisle.

The trouble is, many of the worst offenders have not signed up, and even those who have still owe their financial health to food and drink that make us unhealthy. Big Food lobbies intensively for self-regulation and reforms based on personal responsibility. Both of these are important. But the Government should also carefully weigh up the case for greater intervention, up to and including a sugar tax. It’s not fizzy-drink makers, after all, that have to sustain the NHS.