UK is one of Europe’s worst ‘nanny states’ for eating and drinking

Tax on sugary drinks and limits on marketing of food to children have contributed to UK’s place on ‘Nanny State Index’ - Daisy-Daisy/iStockphoto
Tax on sugary drinks and limits on marketing of food to children have contributed to UK’s place on ‘Nanny State Index’ - Daisy-Daisy/iStockphoto

Britain is among the most “nanny state” countries in Europe when it comes to restrictions on food and drink, according to new international rankings.

The research by the Institute of Economic Affairs and the European Policy Information Centre ranked every country in Europe for how far it regulates private lifestyle choices.

Turkey - which is located mainly in Western Asia - topped the overall list, which examined a range of restrictions, including those placed on alcohol and smoking.

Britain came second only to Hungary on rules on food and drink, as a result of its tax on sugary drinks, and restrictions on marketing of food to children.

The UK was also top of the overall list for being the worst place in Europe to be a smoker, as a result of the smoking ban, high taxes and plain packaging.

Britain was also found to have some of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe while Scotland has minimum pricing and bans discounts in shops.

Researchers said the study found no evidence such policies are effective, saying governments would do better to focus on efforts to boost prosperity, which is linked to longer life expectancy.

Overall, Germany got the lowest score for restrictions, making it the most liberal country in Europe, followed by Czechia and Italy.

It comes as both major parties plan stronger restrictions on marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods in England.

A ban on ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ offers for unhealthy food and drinks is due to come into force this autumn.

Restrictions on TV and online adverts for junk foods, are scheduled for 2025, after a series of delays, to the fury of health campaigners.

Labour has suggested it could introduce a new tax on sugary and salty foods after the cost-of-living crisis eases. Sir Keir Starmer has also said the party would ban the marketing of junk food to children on TV and social media.

Overall, the UK was ranked the 11th worst country out of 30 for lifestyle restrictions, up one spot since the last ranking in 2021.

However, the UK and Ireland were found to have the most liberal policies on e-cigarettes.

Christopher Snowdon, report author and Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “With the UK introducing some of the world’s most nannying policies on food, it’s no surprise to see it rising up the league table against stiff competition. The UK scores poorly in every category except e-cigarettes where it is the best in show.

“With alcohol taxes rising sharply this year and more food regulation to come, things will only get worse,” he said.

‘Paternalistic’ policies

The think tank said the findings show the UK government is “becoming more meddlesome in people’s lifestyles” leaving Britain among the most authoritarian countries for food and soft drink, tobacco, and alcohol regulation.

Researchers said that despite the rapid growth in regulations, there is little evidence that “paternalistic” policies are effective.

They said they found no correlation between stricter drinking, eating, smoking, and vaping regulations and countries having higher life expectancy.

“Coercive nanny state policies create a number of problems and costs. ‘Sin taxes’ raise the cost of living and hurt the poor. High prices fuel the black market and lead to corruption. Advertising bans restrict competition and stifle innovation,” the report states.

Noting the strong relationship between wealth and life expectancy, the authors say: “This suggests that pursuing economic growth would bring much greater benefits to health than coercive efforts to control personal behaviour with bans and taxes.”

The report also notes the growth of restrictions across most countries.

‘Public health threats’

“Twelve of the thirty countries now have taxes on sugary drinks ranging from 7 cents to 30 cents per litre. In 2017, there were only five – not a bad rate of expansion for an anti-obesity policy that has never reduced obesity anywhere,” the authors say.

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Smoking and obesity cost the NHS billions of pounds a year and are the biggest causes of cancers, and tackling these public health threats will save the health service money and help to cut NHS waiting lists.

“We are taking steps to balance the need to tackle these issues with the importance of individual choice, by using measures such as calorie labelling on menus to empower people to make informed personal choices about their lifestyle.

“These measures will also save money. For example, introducing restrictions on where less healthy food is placed in supermarkets are expected to bring health benefits of over £57 billion and provide NHS savings of over £4 billion.”