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Martin Hickman: Mr Lansley, junk food and idiocy

In the 1998 film Bulworth, Warren Beatty's wayward Senator loses his mind and reveals how US politics is bankrolled by big corporations. While not matching the Hollywood actor's looks, the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, seems similarly to have taken leave of his senses in a series of announcements that have astonished commentators by their rapidity and foolishness.

The difference is that this former private secretary to Norman Tebbit has not been railing against corporations. Instead, he has been embedding their views in policy.

While other coalition ministers are making plans to protect the public from rogue banks and energy giants, Mr Lansley has been fending off proposals to tackle the junk-food giants. Campaigners began to realise something was afoot on 16 June when, with his support, Conservative MEPs killed off traffic-light labelling, which exposes hidden salt, fat and sugar. By doing so, his party went against the advice of the British Medical Association, the British Dietetic Association, the British Heart Foundation and dozens of other health and consumer groups.

A week later the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence published a plan to prevent 40,000 deaths from heart disease, calling for a ban on trans fats, no TV junk-food advertising before 9pm and restrictions on takeaways close to schools. The British Heart Foundation, the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal College of Physicians supported those proposals. Yet the Department of Health rejected them outright on the day of publication, saying that people should just eat better and exercise more. On 30 June, Mr Lansley ridiculed Jamie Oliver's campaign on school dinners, saying it had been a flop, and a week later scrapped £75m of funding for the Change4Life anti-obesity campaign, for which he appealed for funding from... makers of fatty foods.

This week Mr Lansley was waving his axe at the Food Standards Agency, set up 10 years ago following the last Conservative government's cover-up of BSE and which devised the traffic-light system on food that would have hit junk-food sales. Though still awaiting the results of a review of "arm's length bodies", Mr Lansley intends to hand the FSA's role on public health to the Department of Health. While admittedly too timid with food firms, the FSA has saved thousands of lives by cajoling them into reformulating products. Jack Winkler, nutrition professor at London Metropolitan University, described its salt campaign as "the single best nutrition policy in the UK since the Second World War".

Throughout, Mr Lansley has parroted the junk-food industry's line that there is no such thing as bad food, only a bad diet. There is some truth to this: people must take responsibility for what they eat. But the mantra ignores the forces arrayed against healthy-eating. Manufacturers spend hundreds of millions of pounds promoting addictive and enticing fatty and sugary brands – against Change4Life's £25m-a-year budget; most labelling hides the unhealthiness of these high-margin products, and supermarkets promote them far more aggressively than they do fresh produce.

Some wonder if Mr Lansley has been nobbled by lobbyists. He mentioned Unilever while opposing traffic-light labelling. Private Eye suggests that Lucy Neville-Rolfe, head of corporate affairs at Tesco, advises him. Yet the Electoral Commission has no record of substantial donations to the Conservative Party from multinational food firms. We must assume the Secretary of State really believes that public health professionals are incompetent.

At almost no public cost, he could have slimmed a corpulent industry that has made most people look as if they have been inflated with air through their belly button. Instead, we will all be paying the hospital bill for obesity for decades to come.


For further reading

'Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease' by Nice (guidance.nice.org.uk/PH25)