Unhealthy lifestyles are not the business of government

Author: Tom Collyer


Since his brush with death due to Covid-19, Boris Johnson has apparently become a health enthusiast, putting his body’s reaction to the virus down to being ‘too fat’ [Ref: Guardian] and claiming to have lost at least a stone since his recovery [Ref: Express]. This episode seems to have informed his plans to spread his health push to the rest of the nation claiming, ‘we are a little too fat’ and we need to lose this weight to better cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has claimed that ‘if everyone overweight lost five pounds it could save the NHS £100m over the next five years’ [Ref: Express].

As a result, new plans have been released for rules and regulations to encourage a healthier way of living. These include widening the existing sugar 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]. Critics argue that such measures 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 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 sugar tax has already been in force since April 2018 [Ref: UK Government] and this will be extended with planned additions of a ‘junk food’ promotions ban, new packaging rules and an advertising ‘watershed’ [Ref: UK Government]. 

These plans 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].

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: Spiked].

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 consumer more of what the government considers ‘junk food’ [Ref: Spiked].  Advocates of health legislation, therefore, argue that these people most affected by the sugar tax 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 peoples’ 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 G.K 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 action.

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: Wikipedia]: where someone should be free to behave as they choose until they begin to harm someone else?

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.


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

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

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

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


The Guardian view on improving public health: a job for the nanny state
Editorial The 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 The Telegraph 28 July 2020

Boris Johnson could solve Britain’s obesity crisis – but not without restricting sugar consumption
Paul Nuki The 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

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

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


‘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.

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 Snowden 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 Snowden Institute of Economic Affairs July 2015

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

Doctors cant stop us being obese: its up to us
Phil Hammond The Times 29 May 2014

Smoke without fire
The Times 21 May 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

Passive smoking: another of the nanny state’s big lies
James Delingpole Telegraph 18 December 2013

Britain has gone from nanny state to naggy state
Phillip Johnston Telegraph 15 July 2013


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 not ruled out by David Cameron
BBC News 7 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

Doctors want a 20% sugar tax, according to new poll
City AM 4 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

No sugar tax says Jeremy Hunt
Telegraph 21 June 2014

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

Fewer than 1 in 5 are now smokers
Daily Mail 12 May 2014

Labour plans crackdown on unhealthy eating, smoking and drinking
Telegraph 4 May 2014

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

Doctors call for ban on cigarettes to those born after the year 2000
Daily Mail 26 March 2014

Sugar tax might be necessary
BBC News 5 March 2014

Britain gout capital of Europe due to unhealthy lifestyles
Express 16 January 2014