Do you agree with Floella Benjamin on mandatory sugar reduction targets?

Here’s a bit of controversy to liven up a Wednesday evening.

Floella Benjamin has written for Politics Home’s Central Lobby arguing in favour of mandatory sugar reduction targets. It’s another of these issues that you can use liberal principles to argue both for and against:

Many overweight children grow up to be obese adults and there are often serious health consequences for those affected, leading to tremendous pressures on the NHS, through the dramatic rise in type 2 diabetes, heart problems, some cancers and a wide variety of other conditions that require treatment. High sugar consumption is resulting in early tooth decay and is by far the highest cause of hospital admissions amongst 5-to 9-year-olds.

It is not too dramatic to say that if we could solve the obesity crisis, we may go some way to solving the crisis in NHS funding.

The challenge of reducing and reversing the powerful trend of obesity is one that we simply cannot afford to lose, so I especially welcome the Prime Minister’s recent comment that it is just as serious as the smoking issue. The reduction in smoking has been one of the great public health successes of modern times and should give us the confidence to know that we really can overcome the obesity challenge if we give it sufficient priority.

I believe a duty only on sugary drinks will not have sufficient impact because so many of our everyday processed foods contain surprisingly high sugar levels.

So the Government should not only address the educational and environmental factors that cause obesity but they should also immediately start to introduce mandatory sugar reduction targets, applicable to all firms in the food and drink industry, in order to improve child health.

Opponents of targets will argue that the state should not interfere in personal consumption – after all, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle does not count for doing things that harm yourself. Others will say that large corporations are damaging us by making processed products that are really bad for us and they need to have limits set for them. Others still will argue that this is all about personal responsibility and nothing to do with the state. Those people tend to get quite judgemental about people who struggle with their weight in a way that is profoundly unhelpful.

I think that there are many things that need to be done to make sure that people are encouraged to and have the skills to eat healthily. I don’t think being obsessive about weight and BMI is always the way to go. Developing healthy habits is probably the most important thing. When I was growing up, everyone knew how to cook. Nowadays, so many of us rely on ready meals and other convenience food rather than actually making things from scratch. It would benefit us all to eat a wide variety of foods – and if you can have as many of them in as close to their natural state as possible, so much the better.

There’s a poster in my local health centre that shows how much bigger muffins are today than 30 years ago, with today’s carrying some 250 more calories. We know that measures regulating cigarette advertising and putting warnings on packets has reduced smoking. Food is much more complex, but can some of the same principles be carried across to something that is rapidly becoming the biggest public health problem? Over to you.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings