Burnham proposes sugary cereal ban

Will it save lives? Can it save money?

Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has urged the government to ban high-sugar cereals in an effort to tackle obesity amongst children.

He told the Daily Telegraph:

Like all parents, I have bought products like cereals and fruit drinks, marketed as more healthy, that contained higher sugar levels than expected.

We need to open our minds to new approaches in tackling child obesity… The Government has failed to come up with a convincing plan to tackle this challenge.

If we fail to act… we are storing up huge problems for the country and the NHS in the long term. That is why Labour is calling for new thinking and why we’re initiating today’s consultation.

The plan follows a report from the OECD which found that English children were almost twice as obese as French, and the third fattest in Europe. It estimated that a "comprehensive" anti-obesity strategy would save 70,000 lives per year.

Burnham has said that he is considering a 30 per cent cap on sugar in cereals, but the move risks being seen as a return to Labour's nanny-state past by some – and is similar to New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg's extremely unpopular ban on large servings of fizzy drinks.

The consultation, if performed correctly, will have a number of tricky questions to answer. As well as addressing the matters of political morality – ought the government be limiting adult access to foodstuffs for the sake of children's health? – there is not yet confirmation that such a move would have a noticeable impact on health at all.

Furthermore, there's the curious wrinkle in all such public health campaigns: they rarely save money. Although on the first inspection, figures for the cost obesity imposes on the NHS may suggest that tackling obesity is a cost-cutting exercise, that ignores the cold truth of the world. Everyone's gotta die sometime, and someone who dies young and suddenly of heart disease usually imposes less of a strain on public finances than someone who lives to an old age but spends the last third of their life in and out of hospital.

That's not an argument to not do it, of course. Long and healthy lives are better than short unhealthy ones, regardless of their costs on the public purse. But Burnham would do well to not over-promise on the supposed benefits of his plan.

Cereal on a supermarket shelf. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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