Many libertarians greeted the publication of the National Food Strategy this week with scorn and despair. Led by glorified junk food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, it called for a sugar and salt reformulation tax, and suggested GPs prescribe fruit and vegetables to the obese, because now is the time to “seize the moment to build a better food system for our children and grandchildren”. To those who place great value on personal autonomy and individual responsibility, this was beyond the pale.

But this wasn’t a consensus opinion. Could it be that we’ve grown so accustomed to the state controlling our every move that we react to news it might try and tax us into eating a kilo of broccoli for every meal with a shrug, or even support? 

When Dimbleby was appointed “food tsar” a few years ago, it was hoped that the Leon co-founder could inject some ambitious thinking into the issue of Britain’s obesity. If it was radical thinking the government was after, then the National Food Strategy delivered. But if it also sought sense, workability or fairness then Dimbleby’s report falls woefully short. The headline proposal – that we slap taxes on sugary and salty foods – will, apparently, lower obesity levels and ease pressure on the NHS. Except it won’t.

First, it isn’t clear that taxes reduce overall calorie consumption. Consider the levy on soft drinks companies concocted by former Chancellor George Osborne in the name of tackling our ever-expanding waistlines. Though it was hailed as a triumph by killjoy paternalists and politicians (these days, who can tell the difference), the decrease in sugar content of the average beverage was largely the result of companies reformulating their products (prioritising sugar reduction over taste) to avoid the levy. 

And while sugary drinks consumption has been on the decline for years, obesity has not. Public Health England analysis found that sugar consumption in certain product categories increased after the levy was introduced. We can reasonably assume, therefore, that people were substituting soft drinks for milkshakes or Mars bars. Fast forward to today, and even by the Strategy’s own calculations the sugar and salt tax will only reduce calorie consumption by 15 to 38 (out of a recommended calorie consumption of 2,500 for men and 2,000 for women). 

Second, why do anti-obesity zealots assume that every overweight individual wants to shed the pounds? Who decided that the obese would be supermodels were it not for cheap, unhealthy products pedalled by those pesky junk food manufacturers? Most of us know that crisps are less healthy than carrots, but as adults we can decide if it’s a trade-off worth making. And anyone claiming that fruit and vegetables are too expensive has clearly never stepped foot in a supermarket. You can buy two kilos of potatoes for £1 and a bunch of bananas for 40p.

Third, it is not our job to protect the NHS. Despite our North Korea-style idolatry, this state institution exists to look after us. But one consequence of banging pots on our doorsteps and willingly enduring months in isolation is that our relationship with the healthcare system has been reconfigured. If influenza spikes one winter, why not don masks or have government impose a circuit breaker? Should any pleasure – smoking, eating, drinking – really be exempt from sacrifice on the altar of the NHS? Why not eternally disrupt and dampen our existence for fear of overwhelming the service?

The trouble is, hospitals run close to or at their capacity every winter – and things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The number of people on England’s NHS waiting list topped five million last month – the highest on record. While we spend more on healthcare than the OECD and EU averages, we have fewer doctors than nearly every country in the OECD. We have half as many hospital beds per 1,000 people than the OECD average.

Why would the state be any better at controlling our lives than it is at healthcare delivery? This government couldn’t organise a booze-up (perhaps one day prohibited) in a brewery (likewise). In an almost comical display of miscommunication, Eat Out to Help Out was announced in the same week as the so-called “junk food ad ban”. This week the National Food Strategy – proposing regressive taxes that will impoverish the poorest households – was published on the day that Boris Johnson “fleshed out” his levelling up agenda.

Because demand for sugary snacks or fatty foods is inelastic, with people generally quite unresponsive to price hikes, those on the lowest incomes won’t change their shopping habits, they’ll just have less disposable income to spend on other things. According to the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the sugar and salt tax will cost every household an extra £172. As for businesses – food manufacturers, restaurants, cafes – is now the time to tighten the screws by encouraging them to make their products worse? Has the hospitality sector, for instance, not been through enough?

This Strategy is too extreme and too ill thought-out to be seriously considered. But it’s in the public domain, and plenty of people don’t hate it, and we’ve been conditioned by lockdown to expect narrow horizons and expanding state interference in our lives. It should worry us all.