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Majority Support “Nanny State” Policies to Improve Britain’s Health Outcomes

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Brits largely support public health interventions like bans on advertising, regulating food prices, and affordability limits on gambling, a think tank shows today.

The Social Market Foundation has said that policymakers looking to improve the nation’s health should not be too worried about voter opposition since the public is overwhelmingly in favour of stricter rules and regulations, and is dissatisfied with government’s current approach.

Over three-quarters of people think the government has taken inadequate action on obesity, alcohol, diet and exercise, the SMF finds.

SMF analysis of several public opinions polls published between 2015–2023 on measures to address tobacco, alcohol, gambling and obesity shows that most policies were supported (See note 2), especially those that benefit children – like advertising bans.

On average, 65% of people supported advertising bans – like limiting children’s exposure to alcohol advertising on social media – across 23 polls, SMF analysis finds. Around seven polls, 56% of people supported price regulations, like making it cheaper to buy healthier foods. Views on gambling are particularly hardline, with three in 10 agreeing that it would be better if gambling were banned altogether and 82% believing there are too many opportunities to gamble in modern society.

The briefing comes at a time when the nation is facing a mounting public health crisis – habits like smoking, drinking, poor diet and lack of exercise account for 40% of all premature deaths and have contributed to life expectancy stalling in recent years. However, government action has been inconsistent, with proposed restrictions on junk food advertising and “buy on get one free” deals postponed.

Meanwhile, labour has pledged to improve healthy life expectancy and reduce regional health inequalities as part of its “health mission”. However, Keir Starmer has suggested that minimum pricing for alcohol and taxes on unhealthy foods would be inappropriate during a cost of living crisis.

Yet the SMF found that alcohol and tobacco duties are among the most popular of any taxes and are more likely (60%) to be seen as “too low” or ‘just about right than national insurance (48%), business rates (29%), and inheritance tax (24%).

The SMF suggests that resistance from industry, party colleagues and the media are bigger obstacles to implementing public health interventions than voter opposition. As a result, it called for public health to be treated as a long-term project that will take “significant political stamina” from policymakers.

In a briefing today, SMF’s Aveek Bhattacharya presents politicians with two strategic approaches they might take to improve public health and bring the public and other stakeholders along with them.

  • Building scoreboard momentum.  Carefully picking battles, proposing measures likely to pass and consolidating.
  • Two steps forward, one step back. Recognising almost anything proposed will meet resistance, taking a maximalist approach, fighting on multiple fronts, expecting to lose on some.

Dr Aveek Bhattacharya, SMF interim director, said: “The most effective ways to reduce obesity, harmful drinking, smoking and problem gambling are the most daunting to politicians, who are understandably worried about the potential backlash to banning, taxing, and regulating.

“Yet policymakers seeking to do the right thing to save lives and improve our health should take encouragement from the fact that most people recognise the scale of the problem and support these measures.”

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