If I were the chief executive of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, I would be very careful where I trod right now. Quangos are looking highly dispensable in the forthcoming Exchequer purge of the public sector.
So what does NICE do? It plays the turkey voting for Christmas. Twice in the past month it has come out with a series of recommendations that are not only – arguably – beyond its remit but are also like a red rag to the new blue-and-yellow striped government.
First, it called for a watershed ban on advertising alcohol, when the government has already ruled that out. Now, in the process of advocating a total ban on so-called trans fats and a general assault on salty foods, it has not only recommended another watershed ad ban (see above) but proposed the introduction of the “traffic light” colour coded food warning system only days after it was rejected by the European Union.
NICE’s raison d’être is to save lives by improving the quality of healthcare (and by implication reduce the heavy financial burden associated with it). There’s no doubting that trans fatty acid is a nasty substance that can cause heart disease by promoting “bad” cholesterol at the expense of “good”; and that it’s also a suspect in other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and infertility. Nor that it has, in the past, been widely used by the processed food industry as a shortening agent (eg in biscuits) and as a substitute for butter (for instance, in margarine). But it’s definitely on the way out. Some countries – among them Denmark, Switzerland, Australia and parts of the United States – have already prohibited it. Britain has not got that far yet, but since 2006 our supermarkets have employed a self-denying ordinance, and the food manufacturers have been quietly phasing it out.
NICE’s determination to rid us of this noxious substance is not as disinterested as the organisation would have us believe. Behind it seems to lie an agenda: a crusade aimed at the food industry in general, and its freedom of commercial expression in particular.
Of course, in the longer run NICE is right to flag up the trans fat issue. Sooner or later its harmful effects – like those of tobacco – are going to become big business for lawyers in the States. For NICE, though, there may not be a longer run, if it goes on behaving the way it is. Government ministers are likely to conclude it is an organisation out of control. And we know what that could mean in these austere times.