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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 25 March, 2019
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Aaron McKenna: Can we have a ban on banning things, please?

Banning ice cream and caramel Frappuccinos will not solve our obesity problem – we need to get to the root of the what’s causing it.

Aaron McKenna

SENATOR CATHERINE NOONE has a track record in generating publicity for herself by calling for everyday items to be banned or regulated in the cause of fighting social ills, notably childhood obesity.

This week she has called for strict regulation on ice cream vans after a woman contacted her to complain about one purveyor of childhood joy going around the estate four times a day. This detailed analysis of the issue led Senator Noone to issue her policy proposal and prompted headlines such as “Senator warns of dangers of ice cream truck chimes”.

‘Dangers’, no less.

The senator has previously called for regulation on sugar in beverages. She put forth a proposal only in May that would see cans of coke and the Silicon Docks dietary staple of caramel Frappuccinos added to the list of items for customs to keep an eye out for in our ports. One wonders if sniffer dogs can be trained mid-life to add sweet caramel concentrate to their repertoire alongside heroin, cocaine and illicit cigarettes. We won’t even stop to consider the fate of the poor barista turned trafficker who experiences a leak in the bag they swallowed pre-flight.

Bans on soft targets

Senator Noone is not alone in a political taste for regulation and outright bans of the soft, sweet targets in life. Many the idle back-bencher of any party makes hay, in their local papers at least, from calling for things to be changed this way or that. Indeed, for all that we lavish them with pay and expenses and offices and staff to man our national legislature many seem to consider it a good day’s work done when they’ve ‘called for’ something.

In fairness to Senator Noone, her heart is in the right place. Some 20 per cent of Irish children are now classed as obese, and as we get fatter as a nation our lives are getting shorter as our health costs get bigger.

Breathless proposals to ban things that potentially make people fat, however, misses the target completely. Scientific policy proposals based on “some woman rang my office and complained about such and such” do not have much bearing on reality. Politically they might win the senator acknowledgement from some parents being pestered by their children as we enter a hot summer (the next few days, at least), but so too I reckon it will cost her the ears of some in future. Her proposals simply aren’t credible.

There is a tendency in political circles to try and whack a mole when its head pops up. Let’s say we enter an era of sugar prohibition. As the senator herself tells us, we have an addiction to sugar. It’s good stuff and our bodies like it. Cutting off the supply of this or that will simply move demand to another product. What will the senator propose then? Keep banning things until we have supermarkets stocked like they were on the wrong side of the iron curtain?

Calling for something to be banned is analogous to calling for there to be a spell cast against it. If people want something, they will get it. So long as there is a market for it, no amount of policing, customs agents, banning particular products or practices will wipe out the supply. It will simply waste a lot of time for public servants tasked with administering the regulation.

Cause and effect

There is also the small matter of proving cause and effect in the first place. To keep going with Senator Noone and obesity, though the lesson applies to other politicians and issues, why are cans of coke to blame for obesity?

I know and you know that there is lots of sugar in a can of coke. It’s not something you want to be drinking a lot of. But so, too, not everyone who drinks a can of coke is obese. A can of coke does not cause obesity. Poor dietary and exercise habits cause obesity.

On the other hand, heroin is the leading cause of heroin addiction. Banning it, or regulating it (as the Portuguese have had much success with) is a way to fight heroin addiction.

Obesity is not caused by one factor but is the product of hundreds of individual factors. To wipe it out, a legislator would need to mandate not only that we cannot drink coke or rush to ice cream vans, but that we need to eat particular sized portions, exercise a certain amount, and adhere to a proscribed set of foods. It would be ridiculous and unworkable, of course. Calling for a ban on a particular slice of sugary foods or beverages is a ridiculous subset of that ridiculous notion.

The underlying societal issue at play here is what needs addressing. Indeed, the government has entire working groups and quangos devoted to the fight against obesity. Safe Food have been running information campaigns to empower parents with the information they need to help give their kids a good start in life. In the private sector, we are not bereft of gyms, and every supermarket chain carries ranges of healthier meal options. Every packet of food contains nutritional information, and restaurants are now also in the game of telling you what’s in what you order.

People need to be nudged towards solving problems like obesity, or any one of the range of other issues that idle backbenchers raise with a simplistic regulatory panacea.

Bans don’t work. People have their own free will, but they’re often open to persuasion. Work from there.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: A Fine Gael senator wants to regulate ice-cream van chimes, but says ‘it’s about a bigger issue’

Read: Almost one in four Irish adults are obese, a rate worse than most of Europe

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