14 AUGUST 2004, Page 43

Health fascists

Michael Vestey

Scarcely a day passes without some bossy New Labour drone appearing on the radio either to announce yet another ban on something or to demand tougher regulations. Today on Radio Four is normally their preferred platform because of its higher audiences, but they'll happily settle for The World at One, PM or The World Tonight, The midday You and Yours on Radio Four is another of their favoured outlets. One gets the impression they're usually whining women, perhaps because of the more deleterious effects on the ear, but one can think of plenty of Labour men who yearn to prohibit or regulate our private behaviour, from riding horses in the harmless pursuit of vermin, or banning all smoking in public places, through to smacking uncontrollable brats.

In fact, I've lost count of the number of things they've wanted to control or stop us doing since they came to power. In recent months, though, I've noticed that obesity is all the rage with the New Labour Roundheads. They can nationalise our diets! Dutifully following the government's lead, the politically-correct producers of The Archers soap on Radio Four introduced 'concerns' about overweight children by having Kathy Perks complaining about the menus at her son's junior school. One has to remember, I suppose, that there's a whole quasi-governmental industry out there to support: the public-sector health researchers and various government-funded pressure-groups. There is even something rather pompously called the National Obesity Forum, which presumably has a lot of earnest bores sitting around talking about fat people and producing papers urging a ban on chocolate in schools and food advertising aimed at children.

One of its prime specimens, Dr Ian Campbell, appeared on Straw Poll on Radio Four last Saturday to debate the motion: we should not attempt to legislate against obesity. The presenter Nick Clarke began by saying that 'we are apparently in the midst of an obesity epidemic', according to a Commons health select-committee report. Most children, the report said, failed to reach the 'minimum' target of two hours physical activity each week. Well, well; I wonder if selling off playing fields and the Labour-dominated education establishment's dislike of competitive games might have something to do with it? Campbell, needless to say. wanted legislation to curtail food advertising aimed at children, and no doubt a host of other government measures, He was supported by Nicky Cooper of the British Heart Foundation, who also believed that thinness could be arrived at through legislation. Against more government interference were David Carr of something called the Libertarian Alliance and Jeremy Preston of the Advertising Association.

Carr was of the view that it was no business of government and he began combatively enough: 'Having presumably grown bored with their crusades against tobacco and alcohol, the professional priesthood of health have turned their attention to food in what is clearly an attempt to conquer new worlds.' Campbell quoted statistics, the sort that government ministers swallow so quickly: obesity affects more than eight million adults and one in ten children, it causes 18 million lost years of working life and 30,000 premature deaths. 'On average' obese people die nine years too early. Obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. These figures sounded pretty bogus to me and Carr dismissed them as 'junk statistics, unsubstantiated claims and gross generalisations'. I daresay we can all think of thin people we know who suffer from diabetes, cancer and heart problems.

Actually, perhaps I'm coming round to the view that junk statistics should be labelled with health warnings rather as they might one day appear on food; or, for that matter, even legislated against. With fingers pointing at the advertising industry. Preston suggested shockingly (one could almost hear the health busybodies in the hall collapsing to the floor) that parents should be responsible for the balanced diets of their children. What! You mean this might be a matter for the individual, not the state? Indeed it was. He also pointed out that in Sweden and Quebec advertising to children has been banned for 20 years and the children there are no slimmer than those in neighbouring countries. 'You can't legislate obesity away,' he said. One woman in the audience thought that the government would one day pass laws on how long we're allowed to sit each day.

I wasn't surprised that the vote in the hall was three to one in favour of more legislation, as I suspected a debate on a summer's day would attract statist types, but I had more faith in the common sense of the Radio Four listeners when they came to vote for or against the motion in the second part of the programme. Sadly, I was mistaken; the health fascists, sheltering from the hot August sun (ban it!), had remained resolutely at their posts by the radio and voted three to two for more laws. Perhaps all the sensible people have fled abroad.