Sunday, March 23, 2008

Censorship built on junk arguments

The global campaign to ban junk food ads is based on junk science: there's little evidence children 'eat what they watch'. Patrick Basham and John Luik, co-authors of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, say it is folly to try to change people's diets and waistlines by banning ads for fatty foods.

A new global campaign to restrict junk food advertising to children is the public health equivalent of using a cricket bat to swat a fly. Such a ban would not just be an over-the-top, crude policy instrument - it is also deeply unscientific.

In the UK, there is currently a ban on such junk food adverts during television programmes that have a `particular appeal' to under-16s. The ban covers both programmes and channels aimed specifically at kids, and other programmes that have a relatively high audience of children. The aim of the new campaign, spearheaded by the London-based International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), is to go further than this: to ban television advertising between 6am and 9pm for foods high in fat, sugar and salt; to completely ban internet and new media advertising; and to prohibit the use of celebrities or cartoon characters, competitions and free gifts to promote `junk food'.

The IOTF's rationale rests upon a series of influential recent reports by the American Psychological Association, the US Institute of Medicine, the UK Food Standards Agency, and the UK television regulator, Ofcom. These reports claim that food advertising to children causes them to eat a diet that makes them overweight or obese. Consequently, it is alleged that restrictions on food advertising will reduce weight problems and obesity amongst young people.

If you peek behind the regulatory curtain, however, the claims about the causal influences of food advertising on children's diets and weight share a central and definitive flaw in their understanding of what counts as demonstrating causality. In order to establish an evidence-based case for food advertising as a cause of childhood overweight and obesity, one would have to demonstrate that such advertising had an independent effect on children's weight. This, in turn, would require a research study design that controlled for the multiple other risk factors (by some estimates dozens) connected with childhood obesity.

However, none of the studies purporting to demonstrate that food advertising causes childhood obesity control for more than a handful of these other risk factors. These studies therefore cannot establish an evidence-based case about the connection between food advertising and children's weight.

If food advertising caused children's weight gain and obesity, wouldn't you expect to find an increase in advertising that parallels the increase in obesity? This is not the case. UK food and drink ad spending has been falling in real terms since 1999 and is now roughly at 1982 levels, even while rates of overweight and obesity have been rising. Consider, too, that in 1982 food ads constituted 34 per cent of total television advertising, whereas in 2002 they made up only 18 per cent.

In the US, one finds a similar trend. According to the Federal Trade Commission, advertising during children's TV programming has declined by 34 per cent in recent years. Data from Nielsen surveys shows that food advertising on television has declined by 13 per cent since 1993.

If the level of advertising has not increased, perhaps the level of TV viewing has gone up? In fact, to the surprise of many, TV viewing has not increased during the period of the obesity `epidemic', and some observers suggest that it has not changed for children and adolescents for the past 40 years. There is some evidence that the time children spend watching TV has actually declined in recent years.

Furthermore, when children sit down to watch TV, they actually view a balanced presentation of foods. A unique British study looked at the food references and messages in regular programming, as opposed to those contained in food advertising. There were as many references to food within regular programming as during the adverts. Children's regular food programming contained references far more centred on so-called healthy foods. For example, fruit and vegetables were the most frequently portrayed foods in regular programming.

The IOTF will not tell you this, but there is also no proven connection between food advertising and food consumption patterns. There is a substantial econometric literature that disproves the alleged connection between advertising, diets and weight. Peter Kyle of the University of Lancaster examined the impact of food advertising on food consumption and found no evidence to support the popular myth that advertising will increase market size.

Martyn Duffy of the University of Manchester studied the impact of advertising on 11 food categories. Not only did advertising have no effect on food demand, but it also had virtually no effect on the demand for any individual food. Duffy's conclusions are hardly exceptional. Other studies into the effect of advertising of such items as breakfast cereals and biscuits, both frequently cited as bogeymen in the childhood obesity epidemic, have concluded that advertising did not affect market size in any general way or to any material extent.

Bob Eagle and Tim Ambler looked at the impact of advertising on chocolate consumption in five European countries in order to test the claim that a reduction in advertising would reduce consumption. They report no significant association between the amount of advertising and the size of the chocolate market. Eagle and Ambler's work is corroborated by evidence from the Canadian province of Quebec and from Sweden, both of which have had advertising bans on foods to children, Quebec since 1980. In both jurisdictions, however, there have not been significant reductions in childhood obesity or marked differences in obesity rates compared with other adjacent areas.

Brian Young of Exeter University studied the effects of food advertising on children's food choices for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Young found that children's food acceptance patterns and eating preferences develop in infancy. Therefore, they predate the influence of advertising. If children do prefer foods that are sweet, high in fat and salty, it is not because advertising created those preferences.

Despite the highly publicised claims to the contrary, the scientific evidence fails to provide a causal link between food advertising and children's eating patterns or weight. You cannot expect parents pushing their supermarket trolleys to be aware of this inconvenient truth. But the IOTF has no excuse for hauling obesity policy into this evidence-free zone.


Reaping the whirlwind

By Melanie Phillips

You couldn't avoid doing a double-take when you read it. Karen Matthews, mother of the missing schoolgirl Shannon who thankfully was discovered alive and well a few days ago, referred to her daughter and one of her other six children as `twins'. These children are actually aged nine and ten. But Ms Matthews says they are twins because she thinks that's what you call children who have the same father. With seven children by five different men, she seems to have no idea of what having the same father actually means.

This little vignette is as frightening as it is illuminating. It reveals not merely ignorance of some pretty basic facts about reproduction. Far worse, one of the most fundamental and universal features of human society - the connection between children and their fathers - is something which Ms Matthews does not appear even to register.

Cases like this expose the lethal hole at the heart of our society. There has been a great deal of criticism of Ms Matthews's household arrangements, as well as the `unconventional' lifestyle of Fiona MacKeown, mother of the 15-year-old girl murdered in Goa, who produced nine children by five different fathers. Both women have been portrayed as irresponsible or feckless mothers. Now there's a backlash with people saying they should not be blamed. But why not? Here are no fewer than 16 children (one of whom now tragically lies dead) who have been exposed to harm, risk, emotional neglect and worse as a result of the gross irresponsibility of their mothers and fathers.

Ms Matthews has been denounced as an unfit parent by her own mother, who has claimed that Shannon and her siblings have suffered an awful life at the violent hands of Ms Matthews's current boyfriend in residence, Craig Meehan - a charge he has strenuously denied. Ms MacKeown, meanwhile, has subjected her children to the anarchy of a hippy lifestyle. Herself a cannabis smoker, her eldest son has a serious drug habit and mental health problems; while her murdered daughter Scarlett's diary has revealed a confused and distressed child who was regularly stoned on drugs and got `stressy' if she went two days without sex.

Yet Ms MacKeown also deserves pity as a mother grieving for her murdered daughter. And who could not sympathise with the joy and relief of Karen Matthews at finding her child alive and well? These women have feelings no less than anyone else, after all. The problem is that these feelings have been channelled into the most twisted tributaries so that the very essence of love - putting the interests of someone else first - and the disciplines of everyday life that are essential to safeguard those interests, are to them a closed book.

The reasons this has happened go far beyond mere criticism of individuals. For these events reveal the existence of an underclass which is a world apart from the lives that most of us lead and the attitudes and social conventions that most of us take for granted. But it is an underclass which affluent, complacent, materialistic Britain has created. An underclass composed of whole communities where committed fathers are so rare that any child who actually has one risks being bullied. Where sex is reduced to an animal activity devoid of love or human dignity, and boys impregnate two, three, four girls with scarcely a second thought. Where successive generations of women have never known what it is to be loved and cherished by both their parents throughout their childhood. How can such women know how to parent their own children?

These children are simply abandoned in a twilight world where the words `family' or `relatives' lose all meaning, as the transient men passing through their mothers' lives leave them with an ever-lengthening trail of `step-fathers' or `uncles'who have no biological connection with them whatsoever.

Shannon has been found; but, tragically, with a background of such emotional chaos she will remain a lost child. Scarlett's mother, meanwhile, still sees nothing wrong in having left her cannabis-smoking teenager in Goa, in the care of strangers in an area known for its druggy circles.

To many of us, all this is hard to comprehend. But then Ms MacKeown's whole lifestyle has been one from which the words responsibility or judgment have been excluded. Our society has encouraged people to think they have an absolute right to live exactly as they want without anyone passing judgment upon them. You want lifestyle choice? This may be an extreme case, but what happened to 15-year-old Scarlett is the result.

Seventeen years ago, the alarm was first sounded about these problems by two sociologists, Norman Dennis and A.H. Halsey, who warned that the bonds of civilised society would eventually snap following the collapse of the traditional family. From that moment, well-heeled liberals denounced and vilified not just these academics but anyone who similarly pointed out that, in general, children in fractured families suffered harm in every area of their lives. Those who went to such lengths to suppress this truth are the very same people who are complaining today that criticism of Ms Matthews and Ms MacKeown is unfair.

They are people for whom the pursuit of adult desires is so all-consuming that they simply don't see the distress of the children or abandoned spouses or lovers who are the casualties of this free-for-all. They are people who think it is altogether indecent to criticise parents for negligence - but that it is not indecent to abandon children to the chaos, distress and literally life-threatening environment of fatherlessness.

Indeed, even though fractured family life vastly increases the risk of abuse, violence and murder, our deeply irresponsible overclass has put rocket fuel behind its exponential growth through tax and welfare incentives. After all, Ms MacKeown was able to travel with her children to Goa in the first place only because she had been able to save 7,000 pounds from her welfare benefits.

In that sense, it is indeed wrong to heap all the blame on women like her or, for that matter, the fathers of these poor children. The people who are really culpable are all those who, intoning the mantra of `alternative lifestyle choice', have defeated every attempt to shore up marriage and the traditional family. In its place, they have deliberately and wickedly created over the years a legal and welfare engine of mass fatherlessness and child abandonment, resulting in a degraded and dependent underclass and a lengthening toll of human wreckage.

To his great credit, David Cameron seems to have grasped much of this. He has consistently said he will support and promote marriage and has spoken strongly about the need for stable and secure family life, as he did once again at the Tories' spring conference over the weekend. What a shame, therefore, that he had to spoil it. His proposal to extend child-care leave will be unaffordable for many while putting businesses under even greater pressure - thus increasing the risk of throwing more parents out of work - just when chill economic winds are already blowing. Both this and his breakfast photo-op at home with his children just seem to be examples of opportunistic gesture politics. But the reform of family life is far too important to be jeopardised by stunts like this.

Years of social engineering have brought the British family to its knees. Today, thousands of children, like the murdered Scarlett Keeling and the rescued Shannon Matthews, are paying the price.


Down with `enoughism'

Two new books claim that our blinged-up, fast-car consumer society is laying people low with compulsive acquisition disorder, harried women syndrome and various other sicknesses of the mind. Don't buy it.

When so many apparently disparate debates lead to similar conclusions, it is time to investigate what is going on.

Worried about climate change? Concerned about social inequality? Anxious about not being happy enough? The orthodox prescription for all of these problems has become predictable: curb your consumption, limit your aspirations, and exercise self-restraint in your behaviour.

From this perspective, it is striking that two such supposedly different books as "Enough" and "The Selfish Capitalist" come to such startlingly samey conclusions. John Naish, a health journalist and author of "Enough", writes broadly in the tradition of self-help. His central argument is derived from evolutionary psychology (1). He contends that, as a creation of the Stone Age, the human brain finds it hard to cope with a world of abundance. To help quell this problem, he outlines a philosophy of `enoughism' to enable his readers to deal with what he sees as consumption overload.

Oliver James, in contrast, sees himself as a radical leader and a profound thinker with wonderfully original insights. Unlike Naish, he presents himself as deeply hostile to evolutionary psychology, which he sees as a highly conservative force. Instead James develops the notion of `selfish capitalism' in which the economic logic of the marketplace has led to an explosion of mental illness in the Anglo-Saxon countries. His approach appears materialist, arguably even Marxist.

Yet despite the differences in style, the two authors end up sharing much in common. Both have a deep dislike for popular consumption and a disdain for consumerism. Both argue for the exercise of self-restraint by the public. And both see humans as fundamentally weak and feeble creatures. How can two such apparently different approaches reach the same endpoint? Let's examine their arguments in more detail.

Naish concedes that his lifestyle is a bit of a clich,. The cover of his book says: `He lives in Brighton with his wife but no mobile phone.' In the text of the book, we learn that he has never owned a television, is a vegetarian, says a secular grace before eating, drives a small Peugeot hatchback, engages in regular meditation and does Tai Chi. He describes himself as a follower of `scientific pantheism' - a religion where there is no god to worship but nature. Regular spiked readers will recognise him as a mellower cousin of Ethan Greenhart (2).

Of course Naish's chosen lifestyle does not in itself disprove his case. The argument that modern humans have essentially Stone Age brains is an influential one that needs to be challenged rather than dismissed. Early in the book, he cites Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, arguing that human brains evolved between 130,000 and 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene era. For Naish, the Stone Age character of our brains causes us immense problems, but they can be overcome if we follow the recipe of `enoughism'. He says his book can help, `by exposing the many snares that our own Pleistocene-era minds unintentionally lay for us, and explaining how the modern world of consumption hijacks our social brains so that we step right into these traps'.

For Naish the human species should not be called homo sapiens (`wise man' or `thinking man') but homo expetens (`wanting man'): `What characterises us most is our capacity to want, to desire, to covet, to yearn for and generally lust after.' In the world of abundance this perpetual state of desire leads us, in Naish's view, to terrible problems. These include compulsive acquisition disorder, harried women syndrome, information fatigue syndrome, and oniomania (buying addiction).

There is no space to detail all of the measures Naish advocates to help us overcome our various enough-induced syndromes, but they are based on developing what he calls an `inner ration book'. For example, he proposes that individuals go on a `data diet', where they restrict the amount of information they take in, to avoid the curse of `infobesity'. He says individuals should only eat in small restaurants, avoid high variety meals and make meal times sacred. In his view, people should avoid credit and shun gadgets.

Such measures, and the many others he advocates, make perverse sense if his original premise is accepted. Yet as Kenan Malik, a British science writer, has argued, the view that humans have essentially Stone Age brains is `specious nonsense'. Malik points out that our minds are immensely flexible. Human nature is not static but develops as we interact with and transform our environment: `We humans have not simply been transported to an alien environment. We have created that environment, through a long process of historical struggle and development. It seems bizarre to hold that the brain is "wired up" to invent modernity but not to cope with it. If the brain is flexible enough to do the one, then why not the other?'

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Enough is the one on happiness. Naish rightly suggests that there are parallels between the drive to acquire consumer goods and the contemporary rush to achieve self-fulfilment. He points to numerous book titles to illustrate the race for individual happiness, including You Can Change Your Life, You Can be Amazing and You Can have Everything You Want. In this sense, the drive to achieve happiness is a close relative of consumerism, rather than an alternative to it.

However, Naish makes the mistake of assuming that his homespun philosophy of `enoughism' is radically different from the ideas advocated by the proponents of happiness. In fact, the idea of respecting limits - Naish's main argument - is central to the current preoccupation with achieving individual happiness. For example, Richard Layard, one of the main advocates of happiness as a goal of public policy, says: `The secret is to have goals that are stretching enough, but not too stretching.' (7) Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College and one of the main advocates of teaching happiness in British schools, is even more explicit: `Happiness I believe lies in knowing one's own limitations, accepting oneself for what one is, and being proud of what one achieves, at whatever level that might be.' (8)

So Naish's philosophy of enoughism shares with the contemporary advocates of happiness a deeply conservative premise. Humans, they argue, must learn to accept limits. For Naish, it is about developing an elaborate `inner ration book'. For those who emphasise individual happiness, it is about accepting your limits and not stretching yourself too far.

Oliver James might appear to be miles away from such thinking, from a casual reading of his work. Although his professional background is as a clinical psychologist, much of The Selfish Capitalist is concerned with the economics of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. His aim is to explain how economic factors have led to a huge expansion of mental illness in English-speaking countries. James' style is also fundamentally different from Naish's. James sees himself as a striking original thinker who is presenting a path-breaking theory about how the economic structure of society is affecting our mental state.

Sadly, however, The Selfish Capitalist does not provide any insights. James comes across like an over-eager undergraduate who is desperate to make sweeping generalisations about important social questions. But he often seems unaware that many of the points he raises have been discussed by others, often in a much more sophisticated way, before him.

In that light, it should be remembered that The Selfish Capitalist is a sequel to Affluenza. In that earlier work, James presented himself as a `heroic mind tourist' who visited seven locations, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen and New York to explore the impact of the consumer society on different people's mental wellbeing (9).

His new book is meant to provide the theoretical background to the arguments put forward in Affluenza. Yet many of his claims are not properly referenced, and when they are he depends on a relatively narrow range of sources. It would be tedious to go through them all, but one of the most striking is his reference to David Harvey, whose A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism he relies on heavily for his understanding of capitalism; James refers to Harvey as `an American political scientist'.

In fact, Harvey, though based in America, is a British geographer (11). With some authors, it would be nitpicking to point out such factual errors. But James has such a high opinion of himself as a great theoretician that it is hard to resist. In any case, this mistake is not uncharacteristic. His work is riddled with inaccuracies, caricatures and half-truths.

James makes two `new assertions' which are central to his work. He argues that `Selfish Capitalism led to a massive increase in the wealth of the wealthy, with no rise in average wages', and `there has been a substantial increase in emotional distress since the 1970s'. He goes on to argue that: `These assertions are not in themselves political, they are either true or false.' (12) He then makes a secondary point: that `the peddling and acceptance of. geneticism and evolutionary psychology have been important factors in making the general population susceptible to the idea that Selfish Capitalism will be good for them.' (13)

Contrary to James' first two points, his assertions are not simple yes or no questions. Working out whether average wages have remained static since the 1970s is more difficult than it might appear to the layman. In any case, wages are only one dimension in the measurement of living standards. Nor is it clear that emotional distress has risen in the way James suggests. Some statistics appear to substantiate his claim, but there are good reasons to open the argument to question.

In relation to real wages, these are harder to establish than might be assumed. For example, in Britain there is no single series of statistics on wages that runs from the 1970s to today. The selection of the appropriate inflation measure to use - necessary if real wages are to be calculated - is also open to debate. James seems to rely heavily on the work of Avner Offer, an Anglo-Israeli economic historian based at Oxford University, from whom he mainly gleans American data (14).

But it is arguable that American society is exceptional in this respect. For James to justify such sweeping claims about all Anglo-American societies, he would need to do a much more extensive study of the data; of course, he hasn't done that. Moreover, there is more to living standards than what we earn. Even if income inequality has widened over the years, it is still the case that living standards have risen.

In other words, there can be a relative increase in inequality at the same time as an absolute improvement in living standards. This is clear in the area of consumption. In many respects, the mass of society has access to a far wider range of consumer goods than the rich did back in the 1970s. For example, in Britain the percentage of households with central heating rose from 37 per cent in 1972 to 95 per cent cent in 2006. Back in 1972, only 42 per cent of households had a telephone at all; by 2006 some 80 per cent of households had a mobile phone (15).

Of course for the likes of James and Naish, the mass ownership of such consumer goods is distasteful - but for ordinary people it represents a substantial improvement in their quality of life.

The other main reason it is wrong simply to focus on real wages is that it obscures one of the main social changes in recent decades: the achievement by women of a more equal position in the workplace. In the 1970s, it was much more common for women with children not to have a job or, if they were employed, to be in an unequal position relative to men. Today, women more often have a job, and when they do they are more likely to have equal status with men.

One consequence of this change is that household incomes have generally risen much faster than individual incomes. Forty years ago, many households would depend on the income of one man as the `breadwinner'. Today, many households have two incomes, from the man and the woman - so even if real wages have remained static, the fact that a greater number of households have two sets of wages means that they are, overall, better off.

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