As a libertarian, I don’t quite know what to think about Tesco’s decision to drop Ribena and other sugary drinks for kids. On its own, I can see the advantages. As part of a broader trend, it’s a little worrying.
So why might Tesco be doing this? Let’s take it for granted that Tesco doesn’t really care about how fat your kids are. What they may be betting on is people who don’t have the best willpower in the world who nevertheless would like some way of forcing themselves not to buy unhealthy things.
If you know for a fact that you won’t be able to buy Ribena if you shop at Tesco – for yourself or for your child – then shopping there might seem like an easy way of shopping healthily. Or maybe it’s just a simple PR move. McDonald’s salads were for some time the centerpiece of the company’s advertising, but were hardly less calorific than the burgers they were supposed to be a healthy alternative to.
Either way, as long as it’s just Tesco doing this, consumers can vote with their feet. My suspicion is that Tesco will lose money from doing this, and quietly reverse it after a few months, but the only way they can learn this sort of thing is by experimenting. As long as Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and plenty of other shops don’t follow suit, consumers will be only mildly inconvenienced.
The danger, though, is that the government uses this as a pretext to ban or tax sugary drinks across the board. This is a common sleight-of-hand used by the government, and we’ve seen seen it already this month: some firms pay their cleaners a living wage, so let’s make every firm pay all their workers a living wage.
No matter that different firms and different workers have different needs – if some politician can find a private firm doing something they approve of, they’ll usually use it as evidence that every firm should be doing that.
That would be a very bad thing. For starters, sugar isn’t really as bad as they say. It’s very calorie-dense, but the ‘insulin hypothesis’ that sugar and carbohydrates are responsible for weight gain above and beyond their calorie content is far from proven. And government has a poor track record in advising people about their health: now they’re telling us that sugars and carbohydrates are bad for us, but up until recently the ‘food pyramid’ advised us to eat up to eleven servings of bread, pasta and cereal a day!
Government advice to avoid fatty foods and dietary cholesterol also seems to have been wrong, if not downright harmful – as advice against eating high-cholesterol foods like eggs and oily fish took hold, deficiencies in the vitamins these foods are rich in, like vitamins D and E, became public health problems for the first time.
The biggest problem with most public health campaigns is that they ignore the benefit side of the cost-benefit analysis. Sugar tastes good. It’s nice to drink things like Ribena. We can treat people like automatons, and we may even be able to add a few years to their life by taking away all the naughty things they like to eat and drink.
But we’re not automatons: a life without the pleasure of sugar, booze and fat is not necessarily a life we’d want to add years to.