Is it time to hit food and alcohol intake?

Should we bring in measures to restrict the harmful effects of takeaway curries and pints of larger? photograph: getty images

Should we bring in measures to restrict the harmful effects of takeaway curries and pints of larger? photograph: getty images


With new scare tactics being used to stop people smoking, should we apply the same methods to the food and alcohol industries?

On February 1st, Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly, signed regulations which will compel tobacco firms to include graphic photographs on cigarette packs which highlight the many health dangers of smoking.

This new move – the latest in a series of anti-smoking legislation which included the decision a few years ago not to make cigarette packs visible in retail outlets – is very similar to how Australia has gone about dramatically reducing its smoking rate.

Last year, Australian courts approved the toughest known series of anti-smoking measures anywhere in the world which sees all logos and branding being removed from cigarette packs. In place of the tobacco company’s name, there is now a series of grotesque pictures of the cancerous tumours that are caused by smoking.

In Sydney, smoking is banned on the beaches of Manly and Bondi among others, the city of Fremantle does not allow smoking in any outside dining areas and there are immediate plans to outlaw smoking under covered waiting areas for buses as well as within 10 metres of school playgrounds.

There are now the beginnings of calls within the country for smoking – anywhere – to be banned outright. Smoking in Australia is now the vice that dare not speak its name.

All-time low

The net result of this package of measures – which has included a 25 per cent price rise in the price of a pack of cigarettes – is that the smoking rate in the country is now down to an all-time low.

The last figures available (from 2011 and before more restrictive measures were brought in) show that only 15 per cent of Australians now smoke, down from 34 per cent in 1980 – a time when there was little restriction on smoking.

While research shows that – on a global level – smoking rates tend to decrease by 4 per cent for every 10 per cent price increase, newer research shows that showing graphic images of the damage smoking does to our bodies is even more effective than price increases.

In the US where smoking has gone from being a “cool” thing to do (in the 1950s/60s) to an almost sub-criminal status these days, smoking rates are at an all-time low at 10 per cent in 2012.

When the first links between smoking and lung cancer were established in the 1950s, some eight out 10 people in the developed world smoked – whether “lightly” or “heavily”. That figure is now down to about two out of 10 people. Study after study has shown that whenever a country/region/area brings in specific anti-smoking measures, the rate of consumption dutifully falls. The more extreme the measures, the more dramatic the drop.

So if action begets reaction, why not start looking at what other noxious and potentially fatal substances we put into our bodies? Come on down alcohol and fast food.

‘Sensible’ fantasy

Most smokers don’t smoke “sensibly” – it’s an addiction. How long then can we continue to delude ourselves about the vain fantasy of “sensible drinking”?

While we can propound, with some certainty, that if alcohol and nicotine were to be discovered tomorrow, they would both be immediately banned, we still allow prominent alcohol promotion and generally view it as a pleasant and desirable social agent.

Exactly what ratio of “sensible” drinking to “non-sensible” drinking is needed before alcohol becomes anywhere near the social pariah that smoking has now become? “Smoking Kills” the packets tell us but all we get with our alcohol purchases is the avuncular “Drink Sensibly”.

The argument has been made that the disparity here is all down to the drinks lobby having a more advanced and sophisticated PR machine than the smoking lobby could ever dream of.

Minimum pricing

Research just published in Canada shows that introducing minimum pricing on alcohol has a direct effect in decreasing alcohol-related deaths.

The findings, in the Addiction journal, show that a rise in alcohol price of 10 per cent leads to a reduction in consumption of alcoholic drinks by 32 per cent. It finds that when drink prices rose, there were “immediate, substantial and significant reductions” in deaths wholly attributable to alcohol abuse. The Canadian study is the first to highlight the effects on mortality of alcohol minimum pricing.

But if the alcohol lobby looks up to anybody, it’s to the certain sectors of the food lobby. Journalist Jacque Peretti’s eye-opening documentary series about the food industry on BBC earlier last year, The Men Who Made Us Fat, showed exactly how when certain areas of the food industry were faced with their equivalent of that first “smoking causes lung cancer” study, they either chose to ignore or suppress the data which showed that certain food substances were linked to cardiovascular disease and a series of equally nasty conditions.

As far back as 1972, John Yudkin, one of the leading nutritionists of his time, wrote a book called Pure, White and Deadly which argued the case for a link between sugar and heart disease. No government would touch Yudkin’s findings.

Funding threat

In 2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was about to issue a report to set worldwide limits on the amount of sugar in our diet. The US Sugar Association wrote to the WHO, saying that $406 million (€300 million) of US WHO funding would be withdrawn if the sugar limit report went ahead.

Along with six other big food industry groups, the US Sugar Association approached then US Health Secretary, Tommy Thompson, who flew to Geneva to argue against the publication of the WHO report. It remains unpublished.

By all means legislate against nicotine to the point of its near criminalisation but if health and wellbeing is the lodestar here, let’s start to put the frighteners on alcohol and bad food. “Drink sensibly” and “Five a Day” just aren’t going to cut it.

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