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Doctors open second line of attack on fast-foods with call for punitive “fat taxes”

April 19, 2012

It may of course be a coincidence. But I suspect not, given the close timing. No sooner has Professor Terence Stephenson, speaking on behalf of 200,000 doctors, called for a ban on “junk food” brands sponsoring sports events than up pops another prominent medic, advocating blanket “fat taxes” on soft drinks and chocolates.

Will the next step, you might wonder sardonically, be for the medical profession to emulate Oliver Cromwell and call for the banning of mince pies?

The eminent health evangelist in question is Dr Mike Rayner, of Oxford University department of health. His argument follows a well-worn formula.

It starts with the unexceptionable premise. About one in four British adults is either overweight or obese. Something needs to be done about it because it’s costing the National Health Service £5bn, he tells us.

Then comes the health warning, coated in hysterical medi-rhetoric: “We are in the grip of an obesity epidemic.” (Remember the medical profession’s headless chicken performance over Bird Flu?)

And finally, the seemingly inescapable logic of a solution: “We use taxes to discourage drinking and smoking. It raises lots of money for the Treasury and prevents people from dying too early. There is now lots of evidence that manipulating food prices could promote healthy eating.”

What prescription could be more reasonable than that – for the already over-burdened British taxpayer?

As it happens, Dr Rayner – unlike Professor Stephenson – does not disclose his attitude towards advertising these noisome products. But we can infer it from past performance, and the fact that he appears to be offering flanking support to Stephenson’s earlier attack on Government policy.

The medical profession’s enthusiastic adoption of “fat taxes” seems to owe its immediate intellectual provenance to a British Journal of Nutrition study – one of whose co-authors is Professor Susan Jebb, an eminent nutrition specialist who has been the government’s main adviser on obesity since 2007. The study specifically called for a 10% fat tax on sugary drinks and full fat milk, which would, it suggested, cut consumption and prompt a switch to healthier alternatives.

Like most of these things, the idea of “fat taxes” originated in the United States. But it has gained more traction over here following adoption, in limited measure and differing degrees, by Hungary, Denmark and France. The stringent French model is, it would seem, the one favoured by (for instance) the Royal College of Physicians: “Studies have shown that following these measures, the number of overweight children in France has dropped from 18.1% in 2000 to 15.5% in 2007,” it said, late last year

The RCP, like Rayner and other obesity experts, is increasingly frustrated by the Government’s preferred strategy of  behavioural “nudge”, which it considers woefully ineffectual.

It must be confessed this self-same Government has done itself no favours by – first of all –  abolishing one of the principal instruments of nudge, the COI; and, secondly, by plunging itself into an entirely self-generated “heated pasty tax” crisis.

If hot pasties are to be more heavily taxed, then why should the principle not be extended to other fattening foods?

The problem with this argument, logical though it seems in its own right, is the old one of quis custodiet custodes ipsos? Who, exactly, gets to decide what is harmful to our health, and therefore punitively taxable? A few pints of Coca-Cola a year is a very different matter to a systematic diet of junk-food. The medical profession thinks it knows the answer. But it does not. In cack-handedly dealing with one form of social evil it threatens to inflict on us another: bureaucratic authoritarianism. Officious red-tape, that is, to you and me; and of course to the business community, which ultimately pays all our wages. Even those of most doctors –  via the public exchequer.

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RIPping the heart out of government comms

June 24, 2011

If you want an exemplary lesson in how to throw the baby out with the bathwater, look no further than the Cabinet Office’s muddled plans for superseding the Central Office of Information.

Admire, first of all, the masterly language of its press release: economic to the point of curtness, yet replete with the kind of ambiguity that once sent the Light Brigade charging down the wrong valley. Clearly the release is written by – and at the behest of – people who haven’t got a clue about the most basic principles of marketing. They seem to think it’s just another branch of PR.

Now let’s move to some of the detail, such as it is. Ostensibly, Cabinet Office “Enforcer” Francis Maude has finessed the advice of his recently departed top adviser, Matt Tee, into a much more economical proposition. Tee’s report, it may be remembered, recommended the COI be streamlined into a fleeter, rebranded, organisation of only 150 employees (2 years ago, it had a staff of about 730). Maude has got the bit between his teeth and evidently believes that government can dispense in its entirety with the services of a formal centralised body orchestrating its communications.

Instead, all government marcoms will now be remitted to the departments of state where they originate, unmolested except by “a new governance structure” of 20 people, dedicated to the ruthless eradication of all duplication and waste. So important is this new department of oversight that it has as yet no name, being referred to quaintly as the ‘Communications Delivery Board’. Another of the heretofore COI’s critical functions, the appointment of agencies, will be hived off to a small “specialist communications procurement unit under the leadership of Government Procurement”. Let’s see how the department of shoes and ships and sealing wax deals with that one. Finally, the rag-tag-and-bobtail of “specialist services” will be placed in “a shared comms delivery pool”, whatever that may be.

The important point to note is that the dismembered functions of the COI will now operate as fully-fledged arms of the Cabinet Office, rather than being semi-detached from it. In other words, they will be vulnerable to covert, if ignorant, political manipulation in a way they were not under the ancien régime. The litmus test of manipulation will be in the appointment of the CDB’s new executive director. Currently, the COI retains some private-sector savvy assets in the form of its chairman Chris Wood and its non-executive director Simon Marquis. It is not clear, however, that either of these will, or will wish to, succeed to the new, attenuated, top role. The most likely appointee will be someone with Tee’s kind of background – a director of comms, skilled at garnering positive press headlines but with no practical knowledge of marketing.

Not everyone will be dissatisfied with this outcome. The big-spending departments of state, such as Health and Transport, are no doubt savouring a famous victory. Under Tee’s proposals, they would have been issuing P45s to many of their dedicated marcoms people. Not only has that idea been kicked into touch: these departments will now be in control of their expenditure in a way they can only have dreamt of a decade ago, when the idea of departmental UDI first erupted during Carol Fisher’s contentious reign as COI chief.

Alas, Health and Transport are the exceptions that prove the rule. They can boast of high profile, successful campaigns – such as Drink Drive and Change4Life – with considerable resources irrevocably committed to them, even in the present austere climate. Elsewhere, the glee may be rather short-lived. Take more occasional users of the taxpayer’s shilling, such as the Department of Justice. No amount of astute manipulation of the headlines by its press secretary was ever going to win the public over to the odious idea that dangerous prisoners might be let out earlier if they owned up to their crimes. The winning argument – centering on making the overloaded justice system more effective and less profligate with public money – is a subtle one, best embedded in a long-running strategic campaign. And who better qualified to help devise it than the old-style COI, informed by the most up-to-date techniques of behavioural nudge?

No chance of that under the new regime. Indeed, with so few experts employed, it would be no surprise to see the government’s communication programme collapse under the weight of its workload. The complete abolition of the COI is a cynical economy too far. Sadly, the Government will probably only come to realise this as we approach the next general election – and marcoms spend soars once again.


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