Unhealthy lifestyles are not the business of government

updated 2022


Since the Covid pandemic, the battle against obesity and unhealthy lifestyles has been more ferocious than ever. Lifestyle factors were found to have a huge influence over how vulnerable people are to hospitalisation and death if infected with Covid-19 [Ref: Office for National Statistics], and after his own brush with death, Boris Johnson announced new plans for rules and regulations to encourage a healthier way of living [Ref: Guardian]. These included widening the existing sugary drinks tax, toughening up packaging rules, introducing a pre-9pm ban on adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) and a ban on special offer promotions of HFSS food in supermarkets [Ref: UK Government].

However, during her short reign as prime minister, Liz Truss threatened to reverse the sugar tax and get rid of plans to further regulate the public’s eating habits, despite calls from healthcare professionals to continue with Johnson’s programme [Ref: Sustain]. Now with intermittent-fasting, ‘slimline’ [Ref: Evening Standard] Rishi Sunak taking the reins as prime minister, there is thought to be a shift back to more government intervention. This flip-flopping between stances by successive leaders shows a clear divide between those who think the state ought to intervene to combat obesity and unhealthy lifestyles and critics who argue such policies are unnecessary, illiberal and doomed to fail.

Attempts to regulate the public’s bad habits are nothing new, such as the medieval banning of football [Ref: Bleacher Report] or the American prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century [Ref: Thought]. The more recent trend in regulation however, started with tobacco. Since the discovery of the health risks associated with smoking became apparent in the 1950s, legislation has been put in place to reduce it. This process has accelerated in the past 20 years so, with higher taxes, public smoking bans and rules for advertising and packaging [Ref: UK Government]. Should the way that governments have tackled smoking be a template for wider issues of health?


Today’s ‘War on Obesity’ [Ref: Guardian] uses similar policy to that combatting smoking, from tax hikes to advertising bans. The sugary drinks tax, while looking in jeopardy at certain moments, has been in force since April 2018 [Ref: UK Government] and, while delayed, there are plans to extend this with the addition of a ‘junk food’ promotions ban, new packaging rules and an advertising ‘watershed’ [Ref: UK Government]. 

These policies have divided people, with support coming from those who say education and persuasion are not enough to stop the obesity epidemic. Critics argue that government intervention forces the individual to abdicate responsibility for their own health and stops them from exercising their own will, however damaging it is to themselves [Ref: Spiked].

Until recently, the momentum seemed to be with those in favour of government intervention. However, when Liz Truss became leader of the Conservative party and therefore prime minister, the pendulum seemed suddenly to have started swinging the other way. In a drive to deregulate markets and ‘cut red tape’, Truss ordered a review into the government’s entire anti-obesity strategy, widely speculated to be the first step in scrapping the whole thing [Ref: Guardian].

Now with Rishi Sunak in control, things seem less certain either way. As chancellor, he had already refused to expand the sugary drinks tax to junk food on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect those of lower incomes [Ref: Daily Mail], but he did stand by Boris Johnson when he introduced state-led plans to get the country living more healthily. While not at the top of his list of priorities, Sunak will have to decide a direction to go in a debate that continues to rage on.

Regulation: for and against
Advocates for government intervention argue that we need to protect the NHS from the strain of an unhealthy society. In other words, ‘prevention is better than the cure’ [Ref: New Statesman]. Proponents of regulation argue that the direct cost of treating obesity-related health complications stands at £6 billion a year, while indirect costs to wider society estimated at £27 billion and obesity-related hospital admissions increasing by 23% last year [Ref: Telegraph]. As a result, they argue that there is no choice but to regulate people’s behaviour from the top down, otherwise it will be too late. 

Supporters of regulation also cite the public demand for anti-obesity legislation. A poll by Public Health England states that 79% of people in the UK support a national plan to improve public health, with 74% of the UK supporting the current government drive to address obesity [Ref: Public Health England]. Supporters argue that government intervention is required to help people live a healthier lifestyle. It is perfectly legitimate for the government to engage in issues with wide government support. As commentator Muriel Gray puts it: ‘Legislation is sometimes simply a benchmark of decency. We declare, through law, that something is not acceptable and potentially actionable… That is the mark of civilised society and successful communal living.’ [Ref: Guardian].

However, critics question how effective these policies really are. In 2015, the Institute of Economic Affairs released a paper arguing sugar taxes result in consumers substituting or adding non-taxed food and drink to their diet [Ref: Institute of Economic Affairs]. Advocates for anti-obesity policy argue that the sugar tax has been successful, with the majority of fizzy drinks companies reducing the sugar content in their products [Ref: UK Government]. However, critics argue that these changes are superficial as fizzy drinks make up a tiny percentage of people’s calorie intake and there is no evidence that these changes have done anything for the nation’s waistline or affected consumer behaviour [Ref: Guardian].

Further to the criticisms made of these policies is the argument that they are economically damaging. An advertising watershed would reduce income for all sorts of businesses from TV channels to sports clubs, therefore restricting cash flow for the arts and all who work in the industry [Ref: Spiked]. However, defenders of the policy may argue that, despite possible economic damage to one sector, the economic benefit – and savings in the NHS – of having a healthier society will outweigh this.

Another point of friction when discussing health legislation is its effect on poorer households [Ref: Telegraph]. Poorer people are, on average, more likely to be obese and to consume more of what the government considers ‘junk food’ [Ref: Spiked].  Advocates of health legislation, therefore, argue that these people most affected by taxes and promotion bans are those most in need of changes in their eating habits and so they are most likely to do so. Critics see such policies as discriminatory and more likely to make poor children go hungry than change behaviour. Phil McDuff argues unhealthy food is often the cheapest and therefore poorer people’s only option [Ref: Guardian]. From this view, the focus should be on empowering people to cook healthy food for themselves or tackling body shaming that stigmatises overweight people, making it difficult for them to change their lifestyle [Ref: Guardian].

This raises the question of balancing information, education and government intervention. Where do we draw the line? Some argue that any government involvement in public health is illegitimate while others think it is perfectly fine for the government to help educate the public.

Personal responsibility vs state responsibility
Author GK Chesterton wrote back in 1935: ‘The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does, he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.’ [Ref: GK Chesterton Society]. From this view, the government has no business in attempting to regulate our health because it is our own responsibility and right to choose the manner in which we live our lives. However, advocates of government involvement in public health disagree as they believe some individuals need help from the state to do what is best for them. But opponents argue that not only is it wrong to restrict personal responsibility but that if you encourage people to stop taking responsibility for themselves and to start relying on the government, a culture of reliance is created by a ‘nanny state’ that stops people holding themselves accountable for their own actions.

Some defend the ‘nanny state’ in contrast to the ‘nanny industry’: large corporations hiding information from consumers. If the elected government does not take control for the best interests of their citizens, large companies will exercise power instead [Ref: Sydney Morning Herald]. In addition, many argue that government involvement in health is simply unavoidable: where the state funds healthcare systems, society has a right to decide how that money is spent. Is this an example of JS Mill’s ‘harm principle’ [Ref: On Liberty]: where someone should be free to behave as they choose until they begin to harm someone else? Does overuse of a publicly funded health system constitute harm to your fellow citizens or should we all retain the right to treat our bodies how we please, even if an individual costs the health system more than they contribute towards it?

Even if we could settle all these issues, do things change when we consider the health of children? Many argue that even if adults can decide to behave how they like, society has a responsibility for those too young to decide for themselves. Perhaps, therefore, governments should take steps to ensure children make healthy choices, from the already mentioned ‘junk food watershed’ to regulating, or even banning, lunch boxes [Ref: Daily Mail]. Or does this infringe on parent’s rights to decide what’s best for their children?

So, should the state have a decisive role in our lifestyle choices? Or is lifestyle the domain of the private individual, who should be free to make unhealthy decisions if they wish to do so, without state interference?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Why Liz Truss must take an axe to the nanny state
Christopher Snowdon Spiked 14 September 2022

The sugar tax is only a ‘success’ if you ignore the evidence
Kate Andrews The Spectator 13 January 2020

Just what’s wrong with the sugar tax
Oliver Riley Adam Smith Institute 4 January 2017

Make junk food expensive, and children will go hungry
Phil McDuff Guardian 22 May 2018


The Guardian view on improving public health: a job for the nanny state
Editorial Guardian 19 July 2020

Boris Johnson should understand that sin taxes work
Michael Escudier New Statesman 2 October 2019

We must accept that junk food is the new tobacco
Aseem Malhotra Telegraph 28 July 2020

Boris Johnson could solve Britain’s obesity crisis – but not without restricting sugar consumption
Paul Nuki Telegraph 20 July 2020


When it comes to healthy eating, we need the nanny state
Michael Moore Sydney Morning Herald 1 October 2020

The Obesity Pandemic- Whose Responsibility? No Blame, No Shame, Not More of the Same
Elliot M. Berry Frontiers in Nutrition 31 January 2020

Boris should ditch the nanny-state crap
Christopher Snowdon Spiked 3 July 2020

What’s Wrong With the ‘War on Obesity?’
Lily O’Hara & Jane Taylor SAGE journals 16 May 2018

Boris’s obesity strategy treats us like children
Rob Lyons Spiked 29 July 2020


‘I was too fat’: Boris Johnson launches UK obesity reduction drive
Guardian 27 July 2020

UK ‘junk food’ ad ban: IAB, Advertising Association and Action on Sugar debate proposals
The Drum 29 July 2020

Why do we get fat? In conversation with the angry chef
Battle of Ideas festival 3 November 2019


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Calories on menus ‘may not be helpful’ in drive against obesity
James Tapper Guardian 23 January 2022

Rishi Sunak orders takeaway salads via Deliveroo when he wants a treat
Joe Murphy Evening Standard 4 March 2021

Rishi Sunak vetoes Government move to introduce new tax on junk food 
Glen Owen and Anna Mikhailova Daily Mail 26 September 2021

Dentists Desperate For Rishi Sunak to Take Action
Zenopa 26 October 2022

Rishi Sunak’s morning routine includes Britney Spears Peloton at 6am
Saman Javed Independent 26 October 2022

UK PM Truss preparing to scrap sugar tax on soft drinks – The Times
Reuters 15 September 2022

Irn-Bru boss defends ‘laudable’ sugar tax policy amid talk of U-turn
Keith Findlay The Press and Journal 27 September 2022

Truss plan to axe sugar tax runs into legal and parliamentary hitches
Denis Campbell Guardian 19 September 2022

UK delays ban on supermarket junk food deals and pre-watershed ads
Mark Sweney Guardian 13 May 2022

Liz Truss could scrap anti-obesity strategy in drive to cut red tape
Denis Campbell Guardian 13 September 2022

What does the new PM mean for the UK’s food industry?
Kevin White and Ian Quinn The Grocer 12 September 2022

Barnsley bans junk food adverts from council sites
BBC News 7 June 2022

TfL junk food ad ban has helped Londoners shop more healthily – study
Nadeem Badshah Guardian 17 February 2022

What’s the problem with calories on restaurant menus?
Annabel Rackham BBC News 16 April 2022

Calorie labeling in the UK: Will it be a solution for obesity?
Robby Berman Medical News Today 20 April 2022

Obesity and mortality during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, England: 24 January 2020 to 30 August 2022
Office for National Statistics 14 October 2022

Years of austerity mean Boris Johnson’s war on obesity is doomed to fail
Kieran Morris Guardian 3 August 2020

Obesity can’t be tackled until we address the trauma that causes it
Eleanor Morgan Guardian 30 July 2020

Could restricting junk food advertising reduce obesity?
Martin O’Connell, Kate Smith and Rebekah Stroud Institute for Fiscal Studies 27 July 2020

Boris Johnson could solve Britain’s obesity crisis – but not without restricting sugar consumption
Paul Nuki Telegraph 20 July 2020

If Boris wants to help Britain’s poorest, scrapping the sugar tax is the place to start
Christopher Snowdon Telegraph 3 July 2019

Junk food ads are banned on the Tube, so why did London mayor Sadiq Khan accept one for KFC?
Jon Ungoed-Thomas The Sunday Times 2 June 2019

Classifying foods like butter or bacon as junk food and banning ads is absolutely nuts
The Sun 7 March 2019

A sugar tax is vital if we’re to keep the NHS alive
Sir Liam Donaldson The Times 5 January 2016

Sugar tax: is it enough to solve the obesity crisis?
Chris Askew Independent 30 November 2015

If we fail to tax sugary drinks, we fail our poorest children
Sarah Wollaston Guardian 30 November 2015

Sugar tax, bacon alerts…just more attacks on the poor
Rod Liddle The Sun 28 October 2015

Mexico is having second thoughts about the soda tax, and so should everyone else
Joseph Thorndike Forbes 26 October 2015

More tax on sugar is not the answer
Telegraph 23 October 2015

Collaboration, not taxation, is needed to tackle obesity
Ian Wright Guardian 23 October 2015

I love you Jamie Oliver, but your sugar tax idea is classist
Ruby Lott-Lavigna New Statesman 23 October 2015

Don’t sugar the pill
The Times 22 October 2015

Sweet talk: in defence of sugar
Fiona Hunter Spectator 22 October 2015

SWEET TRUTH: Is there a market failure in sugar?
Rob Lyons and Christopher Snowdon Institute of Economic Affairs July 2015

In the 19th Century it was clean water: now its unhealthy lifestyles
Sally Davies Guardian 22 July 2014

Forget all that you have been told about unhealthy foods
Joanna Blythman Guardian 23 March 2014

America’s war on obesity is an assault on our liberty
Christopher Caldwell Financial Times 7 March 2014

Smoking in cars: we must ban it to protect children
Luciana Berger Guardian 5 February 2014

Banning smoking in cars: an authoritarian step too far
Charlotte Gore Guardian 30 January 2014


UK to ban junk food advertising online and before 9pm on TV from 2023
Mark Sweney Guardian 23 June 2021

Boris Johnson weight loss: Has Boris Johnson lost weight?
Izzie Deibe Express 6 October 2020

Boris Johnson: ‘I was too fat’
Laura Donnelly Telegraph 27 July 2020

New obesity strategy unveiled as country urged to lose weight to beat coronavirus (COVID-19) and protect the NHS
UK Government 27 July 2020

Web ads for junk food could be banned under UK government plans
Jessica Elgot Guardian 27 July 2020

UK ‘to ban junk food advertising online and on TV before 9pm’
Kit Heren Evening Standard 24 July 2020

UK set to bring in strict new junk food rules including pre-9pm ad ban
Mark Sweeney Guardian 23 July 2020

Boris Johnson’s New Tactic Against the Virus: Urge Britons to Lose Weight
Anna Schaverien New York Times 27 July 2020

A new anti-obesity coronavirus campaign is a nightmare for eating disorder sufferers
Zamira Rahim CNN 13 August 2020

Just one in 100 primary school children are eating healthy packed lunches
Connor Boyd Daily Mail 13 January 2020

TfL forced to remove strawberries and cream from Wimbledon advert after it fails to follow its own junk food rules
Helena Horton Telegraph 24 April 2019

Bacon and butter ‘banned from Farmdrop London Underground advert’
BBC 4 March 2019

‘Body-Shaming’ Adverts To Be Banned From London Underground
Brogan Driscoll Huffington Post 13 June 2016

Unilever Boss warns against sugar tax
Guardian 25 January 2016

Sugar tax in Mexico cuts sales of sugary drinks by 12%
Telegraph 6 January 2016

Tory MP brands Jamie Oliver’s sugar tax campaign ‘Patronising nonsense’
Independent 30 November 2015

Tax on sugary drinks backed by MP’s
BBC News 30 November 2015

Belly fat clearest sign of Type 2 Diabetes
Guardian 31 July 2014

Calls to introduce a sugar tax to curb childhood obesity
Independent 22 June 2014

Britain among worst in Europe for obese and overweight people
Guardian 19 May 2014

Diabetes treatment will bankrupt the NHS in a generation
Guardian 25 April 2014