How do you feel about being told what to do, especially when it comes to decisions about your health?
I suspect most of us think we should be able to make our own decisions (and our own mistakes).
But I also think most of us would accept that there are areas where government needs to intervene and regulate. It’s a tricky balance: if you do it wrong, you end up pleasing no one.
So I was surprised to hear that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – someone who I thought was more of a ‘said no to the nanny state’ kind of guy – is now thinking about following New Zealand’s lead. , which has one of the strictest anti-smoking policies in the world.
Under rules introduced there last year, it is now illegal to sell tobacco to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009.
A YouGov poll found that a ban on junk food ads before 9pm is supported by 62 percent and opposed by just 17 percent.
If we were to copy that here it would mean that anyone now aged 14 or under would never be able to smoke legally in Britain. And that is a very special idea.
As well as cracking down on teenage smokers, there is also a lot of pressure on the UK government to ban disposable vapes. A recent YouGov poll shows that 77 percent of people are in favor of this.
I hate smoking and would welcome further restrictions. I would also like to see other measures taken to help improve the country’s health, such as finding ways to curb the rising sales of ultra-processed foods.
But are bans the solution, and what are the alternatives?
There is a long history of health-related bans that have been spectacularly successful, and some have been a dismal failure.
For example, in 1921, a chemical engineer named Thomas Midgley, working for General Motors, discovered that adding a chemical called tetraethyl lead to gasoline made engines run smoother.
The major disadvantage, which was known at the time, is that lead is poisonous and especially harmful to the brains of children. Despite the obvious dangers, leaded fuel was only banned worldwide in 2021, 100 years after it was introduced.
This is an example of a health ban that I’m sure we would all support.
But around the same time Midgley was working on his discovery, which would kill and harm millions of children, politicians in the US were passing legislation intended to protect Americans from another extremely popular poison: alcohol.
The Volstead Act of 1920 banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of all “intoxicating liquors” and led to the era now known as Prohibition.
The ban led to a dramatic drop in deaths from liver cirrhosis and alcohol-related psychiatric hospital admissions, as well as arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. But many people like to drink, so it also led to the sale of large quantities of illegal liquor, the rise of organized crime and Al Capone. The law was finally repealed in 1933.
Rishi Sunak considers following the example of New Zealand, which has one of the strictest anti-smoking policies in the world
Today, governments generally prefer a combination of taxation and advertising restrictions, rather than outright bans. And that approach can be very effective. Fifty years ago when I was a teenager, half the country smoked, now it’s down to 14 percent. That’s partly because successive governments have made it expensive (cigarettes cost about £13, 80 per cent of that tax) and partly because smoking bans in pubs and public places made smoking much less social. It also led to a dramatic drop in conditions such as heart disease.
Sadly, the downward decline in these diseases has been reversed, thanks to rising obesity rates, which now kill more people than smoking (note to the Prime Minister). There is no way you can ban people from eating junk food; Not only is it ubiquitous, but you also need to make sure there are affordable alternatives.
But there are many things that can be done to boost our behavior, many of which Boris Johnson planned to introduce before he fell from power.
These include the end of BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) sales on foods high in fat and sugar. After all, their main goal is to get you to eat more junk food. You rarely see BOGOF offers for fresh vegetables or fish.
Other plans include a ban on advertising of junk food and sweets aimed at children online and on TV before 9pm. These measures are popular – a YouGov poll found that a ban on junk food adverts before 9pm is supported by 62 per cent and opposed by just 17 per cent – ??but almost all the anti-obesity strategies that Boris loudly promoted have been left behind in the long grass .
With one in five children overweight or obese by the time they enter primary school, and the number of obese adults expected to soon exceed the number of healthy weight adults in the next five years, there is an urgent need for action. Yes, smoking among young people should be banned, but we should also think about our diet.
Waiting and doing nothing is not the solution.