Does the inherent unhealthiness of many snacks mean the government should introduce regulation to try and stop us munching?
The UK’s outgoing Chief Medical Officer (that’s the government’s top advisor on health matters) has urged Britain to “make the bus, the train, and the tube a safe place for children” by… banning snacks. Dame Sally Davies’ point is that as a society we’ve so normalised the constant consumption of unhealthy foods that it’s led to an obesity crisis. She's particularly worried about the effect this has had on children. One in ten of reception-age children are obese, and that figure rises to one in five by the time they hit Year 6. Being severely overweight comes with substantially increased health risks, which is bad for both individual wellbeing and the budget of the NHS.
That’s why, alongside the public transport ban, Dame Sally would like to put snacks in plain packaging, place a calorie cap on meals sold in cafes and restaurants, ban high-calorie foods at sports events and concerns, and put a bunch of taxes on unhealthy food to make them more expensive (and therefore less appealling) to customers.
There’s a decent chance all this would indeed reduce how much unhealthy food adults and kids eat while out and about. There’s plenty of research showing people are more likely to buy something if it’s cheap, easily accessible, and in attractive packaging. And having a healthier population would bring the UK all sorts of benefits - healthy kids concentrate better at school, healthy adults are more productive at work, the NHS could take the money currently spent treating obesity-caused diseases and spend it on other patients, or on improving hospital infrastructure or upping staff wages.
But that doesn’t stop lots of people feeling really uncomfortable about Dame Sally’s ideas. For many, it would feel like the government is trying to control their lives instead of giving the freedom to make their own decisions, however ‘bad’ they may be. Indeed, many people may feel the pleasure they get from eating a batch of cheesy chips at a football game or rewarding themselves with a Twix on the tube after a hard day at work is worth the increase in health risks.
Read our explainer on: government regulation.