Something dramatic happened twenty years ago that has been all but forgotten. On June 17th 1998, 25 million Americans suddenly became overweight. The US government had previously used a body mass index (BMI) of 27 as the threshold for being overweight. The BMI of the average American adult at the time was 26. At the stroke of midnight, the threshold was lowered to 25 and a tenth of the population immediately became part of an epidemic.
There was no obvious reason for this change other than 25 being a nice, round number. The previous threshold of 27 roughly reflected the impact of excess body fat on health and has been vindicated by subsequent evidence which suggests that a BMI of 27 is not just OK but is optimal. Critics of the change saw the hand of the pharmaceutical industry at work, noting that the new cut-off could ‘persuade doctors to start prescribing diet drugs for people who don’t need them’.
If so, it was neither the first nor last time that goalposts have been moved to create a problem that needs fixing. The invention of ‘pre-diabetes’ and the lowering of the threshold for ‘high’ blood pressure has medicalised hundreds of millions of essentially healthy individuals around the world. In 2014, a new drug was approved in Britain for the treatment of ‘mild alcoholism’, a condition that had previously been known as ‘moderate drinking’.
Many more examples could be given. The recent invention of a dubious category of ‘at risk gamblers’ to add to the ranks of problem gamblers, for example. Or the way the government took an exceptionally broad definition of ‘childhood obesity’ and widened it beyond all reason. The scientifically unjustified lowering of the alcohol guidelines in Britain two years ago created hundreds of thousands of ‘hazardous drinkers’ overnight and gave the temperance lobby some helpful bad news at a time when drinking, binge-drinking and underage drinking were all in prolonged decline.
In the United States, the smoking rate among high school students has halved since 2011 and currently stands at an all-time low of eight per cent, but you would never guess that from such headlines as ‘No Change in Tobacco Use among U.S. Youth’. The trick here is to redefine e-cigarettes as tobacco products. If you do that – and every major health agency in the US does – you can portray one of the causes of the drop in smoking as part of the problem while pretending that the problem is as big as ever.
In every instance, the effect of the redefinition is to enlarge the number of supposed victims, inflate the scale of the problem and create the perception that citizens must relinquish more of their money and liberty to prevent further catastrophe. Or, as H. L. Mencken put it, ‘to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary’.
Last week, children’s sugar consumption was in the news again. Public Health England, the largest of the state’s in-house lobby groups, borrowed a device from Tax Freedom Day and announced that British children have already consumed their sugar allowance for 2018. Any sweets they consume between now and the end of the year will be just for fun. ‘We’re barely halfway through the year and already children have consumed far more sugar than is healthy,’ said Alison Tedstone, Public Health England’s chief nutritionist, ‘it’s no surprise this is contributing to an obesity crisis.’
Inevitably, there was a political dimension. ‘These startling figures highlight the need for further robust action from government in their upcoming second edition of the Childhood Obesity Plan,’ said Caroline Cerny from the Obesity Health Alliance. ‘A package of measures including restrictions on the advertising of junk food to children, action on price promotions on unhealthy products and clearer food labelling will help parents to make healthy choices and ensure their children have the healthiest possible start in life’.
If You’ve Had Enough Sugar Day is on June 15th, it doesn’t take much mental arithmetic to work out that children are eating just over twice the recommended limit. But nor does it take much brain power to recall that the limits were halved three years ago. Having previously recommended that people get no more than ten per cent of their calories from sugar, we are now told to limit this to just five per cent.
A single Mars bar is enough to push you over this Lilliputian threshold. Whether you consider this to be proof that Mars bars are terribly dangerous or that the guidelines are absurd is up to you (and I will discuss the reasons given for dropping the limits in a future article), but there is a world of difference between children eating twice as much sugar as the government recommends because sugar consumption is out of control and children eating twice as much sugar as the government recommends because the government has halved the recommendations.
It is slightly disconcerting that nobody pointed this out when Public Health England released their ‘startling figures’, let alone the agency itself whose press release avoided talking about anything as complicated as ‘calories’ or ‘grams’ in favour of baby talk about sugar cubes. The fact of the matter is that children’s consumption of sugar has been falling for years. It has fallen by 14 per cent since 2008. Consumption of sugary drinks has fallen by a third over the same period. Overall, sugar consumption among both children and adults is almost certainly at its lowest level since the 1950s. This is not an obvious moment in history in which to kick off a panic about sugar – and so they have had to improvise.
By 2015, sugar was providing eleven per cent of the average adult’s daily energy intake, a mere whisker above the recommended ten per cent. We were getting dangerously close to complying with a government guideline and so the guidelines were changed. To make the problem seem twice as big, the targets were made twice as small.
As a device for manipulating public opinion, this trick seems laughably transparent when laid out in simple terms. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Government halves the guidelines.
Step 2: Government complains that people are consuming twice as much as they should.
Step 3: Government says that it is forced to take action.
There are propagandists in third world dictatorships who would consider this a little too crude and obvious, but it works. That is why it is played out again and again in the world of ‘public health’. Ever-moving goalposts ensure that a government-approved lifestyle is always out of reach, thereby necessitating the need for more government.
As Johnny Rotten once said, do you ever get the feeling you’re being cheated?