We overcame tobacco, after all. As it became obvious that smoking kills you, and with a terrible death, the will emerged to stop tobacco manufacturers marketing their products in insidious ways. The lovely noise of the cut silk (the insinuation of wealth) and the handsome Marlboro Man (the insinuation of strength) were banned. Tobacco advertising and sports sponsorship by tobacco companies ended in 2002. Cigarette packets are hidden in shops and, when we do see them, they are decorated with photographs of blackened lungs. It was brutal, and tobacco companies were not happy – they sued the Australian government after it passed plain packaging legislation – but it worked. In 1974, 45 per cent of British adults smoked. In 2019 it was 14 per cent and declining.
Does Boris have the will to do the same to junk food: the salt and sugar saturated products sold in ever larger portion sizes and advertised everywhere? He needs to. When I was a child there was one obese child in each class. Now it is a third of all children because we have tripled our sugar consumption in fifty years. It is estimated that, by 2030, half of the global population will be obese. The cost, according to McKinsey, is $2 trillion a year.
Sugar is one of the most powerfully addictive drugs in existence and chocolate was worshipped by the ancients with good reason. J K Rowling was right to make chocolate the antidote to a Dementor attack in the Harry Potter novels, but the teachers at Hogwarts probably didn’t imagine the scale of our gorging. I toured the surprisingly dull Cadbury’s factory in Bourneville once. Some workers told me that many have diabetes.
The government has, over time, allowed food producers too much freedom to enchant us, and worse. Do you know who chaired the Public Health Commission under David Cameron? The president of Unilever, which is the world’s biggest ice-cream manufacturer. It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t, and, unsurprisingly, it failed. What president of Unilever will make the world eat less ice-cream?
We do not protect ourselves against the food lobby as we should. Rather we blame the addicted, which is absurd. If bad food is cheap and available, and good food is expensive and harder to access, people will eat the former. It’s a class issue – the wealthy have the time and the money to eat well – and people do great damage when they suggest, as some maniac did a few years ago, that people should have their benefits docked if they refuse to visit the gym. Enforced homelessness is not a solution to anything, least of all nutrition.
Look instead to McDonald’s, which sponsored the Olympic Games until 2017. (Coca-Cola still does). I toured the 1,500-seat McDonald’s in the Olympic Park in London in 2012, which had words written on the walls: succulent; juicy; sizzling. Advertising works on a subconscious level, to belie what the product really is. They want us to associate it with health.