Admen watch out: health Bannism is back

April 16, 2012

It’s been a while since the medical profession got onto its high horse about banning the promotion of fast-food and soft-drinks brands.

But now, sensing the increasing vulnerability of the Coalition Government, it’s charging straight for the breach.

The militant assault comes from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, an umbrella organisation which can count on the (at least passive) support of 200,000 doctors. It’s being directed by the academy’s vice-president Professor Terence Stephenson, something of a zealot in these matters.

Specifically, Stephenson wants:

  • A ban on brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sponsoring major sporting events such as the Olympics. Carling, sponsor of the Carling Cup, also comes in for some harsh words;
  • Prohibition on the use of celebrities or cartoon figures in promoting “unhealthy” food and drink to children;
  • A safe area around schools, free from fast-food outlets;
  • “Fat taxes”, as in Scandinavia, levied on such foods;
  • Much clearer labelling on the calories, salt, sugar and fat contained therein.

Same old, same old, you may say. And you would be right. This is the “Bannist Tendency” making a not-very veiled attack on the Government’s proclaimed policy of collaborating with industry via so-called “responsibility deals”, which emphasise self-regulatory restraint rather than expensive-to-police and often-ineffectual red-tape.

When I say “ineffectual”, I should qualify that. In the short term, the proposed bans might well have a debilitating effect on commerce without achieving concomitant success in combatting national obesity. Longer term the strategy is tried and tested, however. It amounts to demonising fast-food and soft drinks in the same way the medical profession has managed to demonise smoking. At this very moment health secretary Andrew Lansley, the arch-proponent of industry “responsibility deals”, is contemplating stripping the last vestiges of marketing support from the tobacco industry with a ban on branded packaging. That’s what, in a generation’s time perhaps, the medical profession would like to see happening to Big Food brands.

Reducing the amount of salt, fat and sugar in our diet is of course a commendable aim, and it is right that the medical profession – of all special interest groups – should embrace it. But is it also right to equate the variable impact of HSSFs on our health with the addictive and truly pernicious effects of smoking? There is a matter of degree here, which does not seem to be adequately reflected in the uncompromising messianic fervour of the medical profession. Or, rather, some of the zealots who seem to have hijacked it.

Stephenson himself is a case in point. He may be an eminent paediatrician, but he also harbours some eccentric views. Among them, that second hand smoke (from tobacco) is a significant contributor to cot-deaths. He is also someone who clearly lives in a bubble blissfully sequestered from the inconvenient realities of commercial life. Here he is on the subject of football sponsorship:

“For adults, beer is a source of calories. I like going to a football match and drinking beer, but it’s the high-profile sponsorship that means that every time we mention this trophy, we mention in the same words Carling Cup.” So, let’s ban it, eh? Personally, I’m all the way with Stephenson on renaming it the “English Football League”. Period. But I do wonder where all the extra money is going to come from if we prohibit the likes of Carling, Coca-Cola and (heavy heart, here) McDonald’s from investing in sports events.

Surely, a little more personal responsibility exercised over how many HSSFs we ingest at any one time, not to mention how much exercise we take, are more salutary – and certainly less puritanical – solutions to the national obesity problem?

And, if we’re going to consider banning any advertising at all, what about reviewing the wall of money Big Pharma spends on targeting the medical profession?

Now there’s an unhealthy relationship.


Do scary anti-smoking ads really work?

March 19, 2012

The last time the Department of Health tried to put the frighteners on smokers with a television advertising campaign, it got into trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority.

Apparently, this 2009 ad was much too scary for children. And could, in the future, be screened only after 7.30 in the evening:

That scary. Makes you wonder what the ASA would think of the following campaign, which has just broken in the United States:

Gruesome is the word that comes to mind. Enough to give small children nightmares for months, if not years, to come. It’s just one execution from a $54m (about £35m) multimedia campaign launched by US government agency Centers for Disease Control. “Really goes for the trachea”, as one US journalist put it; and the other ads are hardly less “gripping”.

But do shock-tactics actually work, faced with a tobacco industry which still wields a $10bn annual marketing budget?

Surprisingly, perhaps, CDC director Thomas Frieden admits that he was once a sceptic himself, while serving as commissioner of the New York Health Department. He has since changed his views in the light of research indicating success is positively correlated to a “dose-related strategy”. In other words, the more grand guignol horror you are subjected to, the more you are likely to give up the weed.

As it happens, Frieden’s successor at the NYHD shows none of the ASA’s squeamishness about inflicting psychic damage on young viewers. “I absolutely think it’s okay for an eight-year-old to be watching messages that prevent that child from becoming a smoker, even if it’s something that the parent and the child find disturbing,” Dr Tom Farley tells CBS.

Who, I wonder, has got it right here?


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