Obesity is out of control. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 42 percent of Americans have reported undesired weight gain. Among children, the situation is even more dire, with 15.4 percent of those aged 2 to 17 reportedly obese by the end of 2020, up from 13.7 percent the year before.
These aren’t just abstract statistics. The U.S. has a huge shortfall in life expectancy compared to other developed countries, translating into around 400,000 excess deaths per year. When it comes to the difference between the U.S. and other similarly wealthy countries, 55 percent of America’s public health problems can be traced back to obesity.
Obesity is the next pandemic.
And if the U.S. is very unlucky, politicians will combat the new pandemic the same way they did the old, with sweeping authoritarian bans. Newsflash: A strong government response to obesity hasn’t worked so far, and it won’t work today.
The United Kingdom offers a troubling glimpse into the kinds of policies overactive American politicians might soon try to push through. Britain is led by a nominally Conservative prime minister in Boris Johnson, who calls himself libertarian and won his office by pledging to roll back the “continuing creep of the nanny state” — but you wouldn’t know it from his actions.
In reality, in recent years, the British government has unleashed an avalanche of new taxes and regulations aimed at making Britain slimmer. All have comprehensively failed — the U.K.’s obesity rates are higher than ever, with excess body fat responsible for more deaths than smoking every year since 2014 and over a million hospital admission for obesity-related treatment in England in the year leading up to the pandemic.
The state’s rampant interventionism in this area hasn’t made a dent, and there is no reason to think the result would be any different on the other side of the pond. In the U.K., a regressive sugar tax on soft drinks remains in place (despite Boris Johnson previously promising to scrap it) achieving nothing besides making the weekly shopping trip more expensive for those who can least afford it. There’s also a bizarre £100 million ($142 million) taxpayer-funded scheme which will supposedly solve Britain’s obesity crisis by bribing people to exercise.
The headline act, though, is an appalling move to ban advertising for ‘junk food’ before 9 p.m. on television and at all times online. The premise, proposed with great insistence by bankrupt celebrity chefs and now seemingly adopted by the government, is that helpless children are being bombarded with ads for unhealthy food online and therefore that the malevolent, profit-hungry advertising industry is single-handedly responsible for the national obesity crisis.
Even if that were the case, an advertising ban would be a wildly inappropriate policy response. Government analysis of the policy — not a hit job from a skeptical think tank, but research from the very same people who are insisting that this ad ban is vital — found that it will remove an average of 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day.
For context, that is roughly the equivalent of 0.3 grams of candy, or a little under six peas. The British government is unwavering in its willingness to hamstring an entire industry, even as the world inches towards a period of post-pandemic economic recovery, in order to effect an impossibly miniscule change in children’s diets, not to mention the policy’s disastrous implications for free enterprise and individual liberty.
America: Learn from Britain’s mistakes. Obesity is the next pandemic, but public health authorities who claim to be acting in our best interests have been asleep at the wheel for far too long. All over the world, bureaucrats have been peddling tired 20th-century ideas to deal with 21st-century problems and the U.S. is next in line. Public health is too important to leave up to an outdated and out-of-touch medical-industrial complex which is more interested in its virtue-signaling echo chambers than helping the vulnerable or achieving any real results.
• Jason Reed is the founder of Young Voices UK and a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center.