We have previously discussed the tendency of the United Kingdom toward “nanny state” legislation. Now, starting in 2023, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is moving to ban junk food advertising online and before 9pm on TV — a move that will not only limit speech rights but undermine broadcasters who rely on such revenue. It is a move reminiscent of the Big Gulp laws of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York as the government moves to protect consumers from themselves. As will come as little surprise to many of this blog, I oppose such moves both as a limitation on speech rights and the freedom of choice.
The ban would be imposed on all paid-for forms of digital marketing, including ads on Facebook, paid-search results on Google, text message promotions, and paid activity on sites such as Instagram and Twitter. It is hard to imagine the government will stop there. These laws (like limitations on free speech) are insatiable. Activists will likely move against sports sponsorships, billboards, and other others of advertising as did tobacco opponents.
We have a problem with obesity worldwide. However, rather than rely on education, the natural instinct for many is to limit the choices or speech of others. It is an impulse to compel rather than to persuade.
The law focuses on foods high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS). These HFSS are defined on a scoring scale set by the UK’s Nutrient Profiling Model. Examples include soft drinks, drinks with added sugars, cakes, candies, cereals, pastries, ice cream, pizza, chips, and prepared meals. However, the restrictions also cover items honey and jam as well as zero-sugar drinks and McDonald’s nuggets.
Advocates also want to ban “buy one get one free” or “three for the price of two” price promotions for HFSS products as well as free refills on soft drinks. They also want to prohibit HFSS foods being placed in checkout aisles, at the ends of store aisles, or in store entrances.
Under the law, however, chains like McDonald’s can still advertise so long as the ads do not feature HFSS foods.
We have been discussing the continuing erosion of free speech protections in the United Kingdom (here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech or “malicious communications” remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures. Even having “toxic ideologies” is now a crime. As noted in a prior column, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech under discrimination, hate, and blasphemy laws.
What is intolerable in nanny states is choice. Many cannot abide the notion that anyone would continue to make choices that they consider to be the wrong choices for a healthy lifestyle. They obviously can make such choices for themselves but they want to make them for others through bans and sanctions. Every cause is deemed more pressuring than some abstract notions of free speech or free choice. The loss of a few rights is a small price to pay to lose some weight — particularly when you do not value the choices being limited or curtailed.
Obesity is a major health crisis for individuals and society. The challenge for a free society is to tackle our problems without limiting those freedoms which define us. That includes not just the good but bad choices that we make in our own lives.