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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.