This week has been a good and bad week for the harm reduction cause.
First the bad. UK Health secretary Jeremy Hunt declared war on the course which is the greatest delight of all meals: pudding. Mr Hunt has listened too much to the do-gooders and hyper-regulators of the British public health lobby and told a private meeting of food industry executives that Theresa May’s Tory government is considering legislating to force restaurants and cafes to reduce the sugar content, or else reduce the size of, pudding portions (that is, pudding in the UK and older Australians’ sense of the dessert course – yep, not just plum and other pud but your ice cream, cheesecake, Black Forest gateaux, tiramisu and, above all, chocolate mousse (with cream and cherry on top, of course!): in other words, compelling less of the good yummy stuff that makes eating the merely good-for-you stuff tolerable for adults as well as children.
The head of Public Health England, Duncan Selbie, said:
We need a level playing field – if the food and drink bought in cafes, coffee shops and restaurants does not also get reformulated and portions rethought then it will remain often significantly higher in sugar and bigger in portion than those being sold in supermarkets and convenience shops. This will not help the overall industry to help us all make healthier choices.
What rot. Given PHE has been the vanguard of fighting the suppression of vaping by the puritanical likes of the Cat’s and my favourite villain, Simon Chapman, it’s alarming this worthy organisation is being so selective as to what it applies principled pragmatism as opposed to blind zealotry.
Hunt’s hunting down pudding portions may have got two cheers from the public health lobby in Britain and here in Australia (never three cheers, mind: nothing politicians do is ever enough to satisfy that miserable lot) but it was promptly and ruthlessly shot down where policy is made and tested these days, social media. And besides the absurdity of it as a nanny state measure, Hunt forgot one thing: when was the last time that you saw a “moreish” portion of anything in a restaurant or cafe? In London, you’re lucky if you get a stewed prune and change from 20 quid when it comes to afters, and it’s not that much different here!
It appears the Health Secretary’s already had his own desserts – a metaphorical custard pie in his Boat Race – but given his new PM’s declaration at the recent Conservative party conference that increased government intervention can be a good thing in people’s lives, don’t be too sure. And given that what’s tried in Britain is more often than not emulated in Australia, libertarians and genuine harm reductionists should take note and be afraid. The killjoys of the sugar-tax wannabes like the Obesity Policy Coalition will be rubbing their hands at this one.
But now the good. In Sydney, NSW MLC Peter Phelps is conducting a one-man jihad against nanny staters, puritans and public health quacks in hearings by a parliamentary inquiry into fat kiddies – that is, childhood obesity and what should the NSW government do about it. A more prolific, wittier and saner tweeter than Donald Trump, Dr Phelps this week has continually updated his progress in making gibbering fools of earnest nutritionists, public health academics and anti-obesity advocates who blame fat kiddies on Big Food and Big Advertising doing too much and Big Government doing too little to stop them. Personal and parental responsibility apparently has nothing to do with it.
It was a joy to read the transcript of his devastating takedown of the Obesity Policy Coalition policy wonk Jane Martin – a lady of whom it can be said has no answer to any health problem that doesn’t involve taxing, regulating and penalising those she considers corrupting our innocent little kiddies. In a delicious piece of questioning, Dr Phelps got the dour Ms Martin to admit that kids pestering their parents comes down to the parents, and can’t be blamed on anyone else. He also succeeded in getting Ms Martin and other do-gooder witnesses to admit that if a child is active, and their calorie intake is insufficient to meet their energy needs, their diet is ipso facto unhealthy and a calorific dose of Macca’s Happy Meals and other sugary delights can actually do them good. Besides proving that having a parent with Ms Martin’s prissy values would make for a very miserable childhood indeed, Dr Phelps’s questions, and the frantic contortions they caused, were the best entertainment on offer in Sydney this week.
To combat the all-powerful public health puritans we need more Peter Phelpses in our parliaments, natural iconoclasts who never take the decrees of self-appointed experts as gospel. He is showing how it can be done: if only a few health ministers would follow his sceptical example.
The other piece of good news this week is courtesy of an industry group, the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, who are the people who represent the interests of corner shops, 7-Elevens and the like. The AACS have released the findings of commissioned polling that indicates for the Australian public the legalisation of nicotine-containing vaping devices is more popular than the Left’s favourite political agenda-strangling cause, same-sex marriage.
The poll was based on a sample of 4,000 respondents (of whom about half were smokers), about three times the size of a common-or-garden Newspoll and therefore with a very small margin of error. Key findings included:
- 73 per cent of Australians support the legalisation of e-cigarettes if it helps smokers quit and if, as our Public Health England friends have concluded in reviewing the evidence, it is at least 95 per cent safer than combustible tobacco.
- 54 per cent of Australians said that the issue could influence or even change their vote in an election.
- 68 per cent of smokers said that they would try e-cigarettes if they were readily available and cheaper than normal tobacco; and
- 21 per cent of Australians said they were not aware nicotine e-cigarettes are not legal in Australia; and
- Only 6 per cent of non-smokers said they would consider trying e-cigarettes.
The AACS makes the simple point that their members can sell deadly ciggies, but not an almost risk-free alternative that can deliver nicotine without the deadly chemicals, metals and gases in tobacco and tobacco smoke. To them, Australia’s continuing ban on nicotine vaping makes no sense, and it appears the great majority of the Australian public agree.
This poll is excellent news, and ammunition, for genuine tobacco harm reduction advocates, and should give comfort to pusillanimous pollies who have cowered far too long before public health puritans, and their acolyte bureaucrats, who want vapers treated like fugitive criminals while themselves hiding behind the fig-leaf known as the “precautionary principle”. The message of the AACS poll is that if people understand what the vaping product is, how it works and, more importantly, what it can do to reduce health risks and the deadly consequences of smoking, politicians and parties will be rewarded for their foresight and wisdom, and for applying a little common sense instead of blind ideology.
Thanks to AACS and Peter Phelps, it’s becoming a good week for genuine harm reduction, which assumes most people have at least half a brain to decide things for themselves, and policy should respect their right to make their own personal choices and take personal responsibility for them. As for Nanny Jeremy and his puny pudding portions, the UK Health secretary simply isn’t in the good policy Hunt.
Terry Barnes is a policy consultant, former senior adviser to Howard government health ministers and a part-time fellow of the UK Institute of Economic Affairs