I thought Andrew Lansley’s decision to stop the £75 million a year advertising campaign lecturing us on what to eat and not to eat would be one of the least contentious cuts. On Friday night the Any Questions audience, egged on by Margaret Hodge and John Harris from the Guardian, contained many who felt this was crucial to our survival as a nation. In their world people will eat the wrong things, get fat and ruin their lives, unless a caring government spends some money on telling them they should not do so.
I explained that the government was inviting the food and retail industries to spend some of their large advertising budgets on consumer advice on healthy diets and lifestyles, as some already do. This was a blue rag to the socialist bulls. The laughed and scorned the food and retail companies, and argued that you could not trust such institutions to undertake this crucial public interest role. They seem to imply they don’t mind if their consumers become fat and suffer the consequences of poor diet and cannot be trusted.
I pointed out that food manufacturers and retailers in the UK produce a stunning choice of foodstuffs in a wide range of outlets. I could have added that in many places now there is 24 hour access to good quality food in the stores. Choice, keen pricing and high quality have resulted from the competition we enjoy.
A part of the audience was underwhelmed, claiming to dislike the very shops they rely on for their daily bread and milk. It is their money and their choices which sustains the successful larger chains. Those chains keep close to the opinions of their customers, and are happy to include health promotions, and community good works in their approach.
Cancelling the government advertising would make a modest contribution to sorting out the deficit withough losing something of value. Margaret Hodge was unable to answer two simple questions. Why did obesity rise under Labour if these ads were so useful? How many people do what a government ad tells them to do, unless it is reminding them of a legal duty with penalties for non compliance?