Today—if you're in Britain—you may well hear the latest opinions from NICE. In a nutshell, they've come up with some more nanny state policies to control what you eat, which vary from the predictable to the surreal. According the the Telegraph, their schemes include...
• Low-salt and low-fat foods should be sold more cheaply than their unhealthy counterparts, through the use of subsidies if necessary
Thereby forcing people who don't eat in a government-approved way to subsidise those who do. No thanks.
• Advertising of unhealthy foods should be banned until after 9pm and planning laws should be used to restrict the number of fast food outlets, especially near schools
Preventing businesses from opening near schools is a horrendous idea from the point of liberty, not that NICE would be interested in that. And the advertising ban won't make any difference—it didn't with alcohol—and it's impossible to define 'unhealthy' anyway, because what counts is the overall diet, not specific items in the diet. (On the other hand, if it gets the current McDonalds advert off the screens, I could be persuaded to change my mind.)
• The Common Agricultural Policy should focus more on public health, ensuring farmers are paid to produce healthier foods
What? Farmers produce fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. How are these supposed to be made healthier? It's the processing and cooking that may (or may not) make them less healthy, not the growing of them. Unless, of course, NICE want them to be grown organically, in which case they're haven't been paying attention.
• Action should also be taken to introduce a “traffic light” food labelling system, even though the European Parliament recently voted against this
Well, quite. So forget it. What is with public health campaigners thinking they can override the EU? (See minimum pricing.)
There's more of this at the Telegraph and it all follows the anti-smoking blueprint, natch. My main reason for mentioning it is not to talk about the policies themselves, but the obligatory death toll NICE have conjured up to generate the column inches.
40,000 deaths a year due to junk food, says health watchdog Nice
I've wondered for some time what would happen if you added up all the 'preventable' deaths claimed in reports like this. I've never got round to doing a proper estimate but as a very rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation, here's what I've come up with...
As a starting pointing, there are about 490,000 deaths a year in England and Wales (ONS, 2008). Of these, 175,000 involve people aged 85 or over. It's surely pushing it to describe these deaths as 'preventable', so lets exclude them, leaving a total of 315,000.
Of those 315,000, there are some that even the most eager public healthist has yet to blame on lifestyle. For example:
Intentional self-harm: 8,000
Accidents (including traffic accidents): 13,00
Alzheimers/Parkinson's/motor neuron disease: 7,000
There are many, many others but let's be ultra-conservative and just exclude these 39,000 deaths. That leaves us with a total of 276,000.
Now let's look at how many deaths are attributed to specific causes in the newspapers:
Junk food: 40,000
Air pollution: 50,000
Medical accidents and errors: 40,000
= 306,000 deaths
In other words, we seem to have more deaths from the estimates than we have bodies in the graveyard. Even with the implicit, if ridiculous, assumption that every cancer and every heart attack is preventable, the figures don't add up (and we still haven't taken into account things like fires, assaults, drownings, murders and contagious diseases).
This, of course, is a very crude way of working it out—most of these estimates include Scotland, for one thing, and there will be some overlap between 'junk food' and 'obesity'. Nevertheless, I suspect that if a fuller analysis was carried out, we would still find that not only is every single death 'preventable', but there are not actually enough deaths to go round.