The Mayor of New York wants to ban super-sized cups of sugary drinks. I'd go further

Boris Johnson wrote an interesting article in the Telegraph on Monday, all about the Mayor of New York’s attempt to curb some of the worst excesses of his fat citizenry’s diet viz a ban on super-sized cups of sugary drinks like soda. It is hardly necessary to explain why; as Damian Thompson points out in his new book, The Fix; How addiction is invading our lives and taking over your world (I’m hoping that my mention of it here will get me a free review copy), sugar is in almost everything we eat and drink and it is slowly killing us.

Our attitude to sugar needs to go the same way as smoking. Looking back on the anti-smoking campaign it seems extraordinary that until the 1960s or thereabouts, when Sir Richard Doll and his colleagues made the irrefutable connection between lung cancer and smoking, a pall of heavy cigarette smoke hung everywhere: in trains, cinemas, restaurants and especially in our own homes. My own father, a GP, was a 60-a-day man and I used to hear his smoker’s cough in the surgery as he was listening to his patients’ lungs, all hacking away with their own smoker’s cough. King George VI, a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer, was actually advised to smoke more, on the grounds that it would ease his stammer.

Libertarians grumble at the increasingly draconian measures that have come into force to stop us smoking in public. A few non-smokers have apparently taken up smoking in defiance. But smoking was ruining the nation’s health. When something like that becomes obvious the government has a duty to do something. I suspect the same will become true of our sugar intake. According to Johnson’s article, almost 20 per cent of London’s children are technically obese “and the proportion is rising all the time”. He points out, as if we didn’t already know it, that “This fatness plague is costing about a billion in extra healthcare costs in London alone; obesity is associated with diabetes, with heart disease, with some forms of cancer”.

I took my grandchildren to McDonald’s for a treat over half term; without meaning to sound like a patronising middle-class granny, it was a depressing spectacle: hordes of overweight children enthusiastically munching on the fatty and sugary in-house fare, alongside overweight adults also munching hard (while occupied with their mobile phones). They looked so at home I got the impression that they all lived at McDonald’s. I ordered three small milk shakes in different flavours, only to be presented with three large tubs. My grandson assured me they were the smallest size. If I were Mayor Bloomberg of New York I would be inclined to a whole host of drastic measures, not just tinkering around with the cup size of sugary drinks.

However, there are other ways of thinning the populace without trampling over freedom of choice. Carolyn Moynihan writes from New Zealand in the Family Edge blog that a millionaire businessman from Auckland, Tony Falkenstein, has come up with an imaginative response to the anti-fat war: he has distributed rent-free water coolers to thousands of homes in a poor part of the city and supplied families with filtered tap water at $1 a litre. He estimates that the consumption of fizzy drinks has fallen by 60 per cent in homes that have a water cooler.

It seems that Falkenstein got the idea from bringing home a water cooler for his own children. They could help themselves to a drink and use easy technology – pressing a button – at the same time. The psychology behind the idea is simple: you re-programme the brain to think that using a water cooler is as much fun as buying a fizzy drink.

My mother, who lived through the war, goes on about how good it all was when everyone had to travel about on bicycles and cook plain, nourishing fare; sugar was rationed “and everyone was healthy”. This is a nostalgic and simplistic view, obviously – but perhaps the Coalition should turn from peripheral concerns to combating its flabby, self-indulgent electorate? I advocate turning McDonald’s into 1940s-style theme parks where the milk shakes are strictly rationed.