His restaurant empire may be falling apart but Jamie Oliver can console himself that he’s still running the country. At the start of the year, the celebrity chef launched a campaign to ban the sale of energy drinks to children. When Mr Oliver says jump, the government invariably says ‘how high?’, and so it came to pass – a mere eight months later – that Theresa May has interrupted her overseas trip to announce such a ban.
Judging by the garbled press release that accompanied the announcement, the government isn’t sure what problem this is supposed to address. The press release begins by complaining about the amount of caffeine in energy drinks (‘the equivalent of nearly three cans of cola’) and ends with Public Health England’s nanny-in-chief, Duncan Selbie, lauding the ban as ‘another bold step needed to turn the tide on childhood obesity’.
So what is the government protecting children from: sugar or caffeine? If it’s sugar then why isn’t Mrs May calling for a ban on the sale of all sugary drinks – or, better still, all sugary food – to anyone under the age of 18? After all, most energy drinks have a similar amount of sugar in them as a regular soft drink and less sugar than a typical dessert.
But if it’s caffeine that’s the problem, why isn’t the government banning the sale of coffee to anyone under the age of 18? Energy drinks have the same amount of caffeine in them as a cup of instant coffee and they contain considerably less caffeine than a typical high street coffee.
Dare I suggest that nobody is calling for either of these prohibitions because making it a criminal offence to sell coffee or cola to 17 year olds would strike most people as bonkers? And so it is, but it is no less ridiculous than banning teenagers from buying energy drinks.
Admittedly, there could be health or behavioural problems associated with young children consuming caffeine. If there is an epidemic of primary school children getting high on caffeine, most parents would have no problem with banning the sale of caffeinated products in all forms to kids of that age. But a ban on selling energy drinks – and energy drinks alone – to everyone under the age of 18 is draconian, arbitrary and capricious.
If the ban is aimed at caffeine, it is merely excessive. If it is aimed at tackling the imaginary ‘epidemic’ of childhood obesity, it is downright sinister for it indicates that the government is prepared to implement an outright ban on the sale of any product that is perceived to have too many calories to anyone under the age of 18.
Perhaps the most charitable interpretation is that the Conservatives simply haven’t put any thought into this at all. It is a ban and Jamie Oliver supports it, and that is enough for them. Theresa May’s claim that energy drinks are cheaper than other soft drinks certainly suggests that she has not done any deep research into this market herself. Alternatively, it may be that this is a policy dreamt up by the illiberal killjoys at Public Health England and pushed through while everyone else was on holiday. Either way, it is confirmation that this is a government that bans first and asks questions later.