Silly Recommendations Are Very Bad For Our Health

Should the Government give tax breaks for gym memberships? Sponsor therapy sessions for smokers? Limit the number of bottleshops in each suburb?

The Federal Government’s Preventative Health Taskforce has spent the past year coming up with creative little ideas to help Australians kick their alcohol, tobacco and fatty food habits. On Tuesday, the taskforce delivered its recommendations to Canberra. But they’ve been dripping out their proposals to the media for a few weeks.

Indeed, the taskforce seems to have adopted a tactic new to policy debate: if you propose enough bad ideas in a short enough space of time, it’s impossible to rebut them all.

One of the least convincing ideas is the one that has got the most attention: subsidised gym membership and fitness equipment to tackle obesity.

Yes, gyms can be expensive. But come the raw prawn, National Preventative Health Taskforce. Gwyneth Paltrow may spend $900 a month to go to a “workout studio”, according to the British Telegraph, but most gym memberships are the cost of an average mobile phone plan.

Maybe we are all craven, stingy fatties, but if we are, then it’d be a good bet that we’re lazy too. A few small tax breaks or a small government-sponsored reduction in the price of a gym membership is not exactly a compelling motivator to cast aside the pizza boxes and pump weights.

One of the more prominent anti-smoking proposals of the taskforce is to scrub cigarette packs of all brand identification – logos, colours, everything – as if stencilled gold foil pasted onto a cardboard box is all it takes to eliminate an individual’s willpower. Are there really that many people who want to quit smoking, but keep being drawn back by the shiny wrapping, like a nicotine-addled magpie?

No doubt the taskforce hopes to replace the labels with “YOU MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD ALREADY” in a nice bold typeface on one side of the pack, and on the other side a picture of a confused and sad Bruce Willis. And you get a mandatory slap on the face with each packet purchased.

We’re a lot further down the nanny state’s slippery slope than anybody could have predicted a few decades ago. When restrictions on tobacco were first seriously implemented, those who opposed the measures asked whether fatty food could be the next target. That concern was, of course, dismissed as silly and a little bit shrill. Well, it’s government policy now.

There’s a big chasm between the medical world and the world of public policy.

Public health activists demonstrate their odd detachment from the mainstream world of politics when they start talking about our “obesogenic” environment – a term used by reputable groups such as VicHealth and the Australian Heart Foundation to describe a society which apparently makes obesity nearly inevitable.

Like those post-Marxist philosophers who study the “essential violence” of peaceful capitalism, these public health academics now seek to expose the essential fatness of 21st century Australia. Indeed, many health scholars have moved so far out of the realm of medicine that they seem to be developing a branch of sociology based solely on trans fats.

They may have good intentions. Nobody wants Australia to be needlessly unhealthy. But these medicos with ambitious regulatory proposals rarely consider some critical questions. Will there be unintended consequences? (Such as drinkers changing from alcopops to hard spirits since the tax was increased.) And where is the evidence that it’ll even work – will the specific policy being recommended actually fix the problem?

There is an almost unanimous agreement among public health lobbyists and the commentariat that the Government should ban junk food advertising to children. But theRoyal Journal of Medicine argues there is “no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children’s food consumption”.

Our peak communications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which has repeatedly looked at the issue over the past decade, agrees. Nevertheless, we still get vacuous claims about “pester-power” – claims which seem to be driven by the belief that only the government can stop kids nagging their parents.

Mark Twain was concerned that giving the government the power to “meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens” risked people losing their “independence of thought and action”. Today, it seems that for many in the public health establishment, this loss of independent thought and action is not so much a warning as an assumption.

Where Is The Evidence That Junk Food Ads Make Kids Fat?

Australia’s public health establishment doesn’t lack ideas. Another official report into preventative health brings another few dozen recommended regulations, subsidies, cries for greater ‘public awareness’ and demands for further (commissioned) research.

This latest edition is the result of the Senate Inquiry into Obesity in Australia put out yesterday in order to avoid being completely overshadowed by the release of a National Preventative Health Strategy that should come out sometime this month.

The committee’s proposals are predictable. Limiting – with a view to banning – advertising of junk food to children. Subsidising gym memberships. Even more food labelling. Regulating stupid diet programs. Encouraging urban planners to deliberately design cities that are inconvenient to drive in. We’ve been hearing these ideas for years.

Unfortunately, while public health advocates may talk big on ‘evidence-based’ policy, their recommendations almost always fall well below that standard.

Take the popular claim that junk food advertising is causing fat kids. The evidence just isn’t there. The federal government’s peak communications research body, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, has concluded that it is near impossible to parse out the relationship between advertising and childhood obesity. At best, advertising could account for 2 per cent of food choice.

And the fuzziness of the relationship is clearly reflected in the academic literature: “Despite media claims to the contrary, there is no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children’s food consumption and, consequently, no reason to believe that a complete ban on advertising would have any useful impact on childhood obesity rates.”

Yet despite this almost complete lack of evidence – which was acknowledged in the committee’s public hearings – the committee’s report just recommends more stringent regulations on advertising, and, of course, more research. And the Senate was actually quite conservative compared to the waves of doctors and public health activists who participated in the inquiry, agitating for every sort of ban and regulation on marketing to children they could think of.

So why such a casual approach to the use of evidence in developing effective public policy, from an industry that prides itself on the close scrutiny of evidence as it affects medical outcomes? Regulation might not be a science, but does nevertheless require careful attention to cost-benefit analysis, and some analysis of efficacy and efficiency. And then governments need to consider the philosophical implications of many regulations – how it relates to responsibility and choice, and who will bear the brunt of the costs.

But as we wait for the Preventative Health Taskforce to lodge its report, we’re still seeing no signs that these issues are really being considered.

The Road To Hell Is Not Paved With Poker Machines

Is there any form of entertainment more reviled than the pokies? Perhaps cockfighting, or rabbit hunting. Or Russian roulette. But then again, nursing homes aren’t sending the elderly in groups to watch blood sports.

Obviously, when problem gambling manifests itself as a serious mental illness, there should be, and is, professional help available. But levels of problem gambling are actually quite low. According to the most recent study in Victoria, less than 2per cent of pokies players are problem gamblers, and that’s with a pretty fuzzy and expansive definition of what constitutes a “problem”.

Ninety-eight per cent of people who play the slots suffer no negative consequences. Why then is there such extraordinary venom directed at the industry? The average Victorian spends just $50 on poker machines a month – the cost of dinner and a movie.

So there’s something a bit distasteful about the passion with which the great and good declare their anti-pokies views.

Not even cigarettes cop as much flak as the pokies. Anti-tobacco activists appear to believe smoking is the equivalent of being stabbed in the face by a cigarette company – every cigarette is doing you damage – but few community leaders go so far as proposing the complete elimination of smoking, as they do with the pokies.

Perhaps it’s like that old anecdote about the academics who have never met anyone who voted for John Howard – pretty much everybody has tried a cigarette, and most people have friends who regularly smoke, but who could be so tasteless as to enjoy gambling with a machine? Certainly not anyone I know.

Still, it makes sense that poker machines would cop the brunt of anti-gambling sentiment. The pokies have none of the romance of other types of gaming. Playing high-stakes poker around a table while wearing a tuxedo could be very romantic. One-cent pokies? Very rarely romantic. In his 22 adventures so far, James Bond has never once seduced a leggy European femme fatale while grasping a cup full of change and hoping three strawberries will appear in a row, as delightful as that would be to watch.

Sure, it doesn’t always look like pokies players are having a whole lot of fun. But while it’s easy to disdain those who spend Saturday night pulling a lever in a suburban pub – their vacant look, their robotically repetitive movements, their apparent joylessness – have you ever looked at somebody else while they watched a movie?

I don’t want to sound all “neo-liberal” here – respecting individual choice and economic liberty is so 2007 – but for the most part, people do things because they want to.

As a consequence, saying that Victorians “lost” $2.4billion at the pokies last financial year makes about as much sense as saying Victorians lost $2.4billion at the cinemas. Perhaps the critics of poker machines could grant that people who go out of their way to play the pokies derive at least some small benefit from doing so? As much as it enjoys the revenue from taxes on poker machines, the State Government doesn’t force anybody to play.

Indeed, a very weird concern of the anti-pokies movement is that state governments are addicted to the revenue they receive from heavily taxing poker machines. Admittedly, in the Victorian budget last week, the Government expects to receive slightly over $1.6billion from its assorted gaming taxes – most of which comes from the pokies. But this is a tiny 4per cent of total state revenue.

Anyway, if the Government needs “to wean itself off gambling revenue”, as the head of the Interchurch Gaming Taskforce said last week, then the quickest way would be to dramatically reduce taxes on gambling. This may not, however, be the solution anti-pokies activists are looking for.

Traditionally, governments have banned the lower classes from card games and betting. And those same cash-hungry governments kindly offered the middle classes official revenue-raising lotteries. The upper classes have had free rein to indulge in whatever stupid games of chance they can devise. In fact, in the history of Europe, a surprising number of territorial acquisitions have been made not through war but as a result of bets between over-confident monarchs.

After centuries of paternalism, anti-gambling activists perhaps need a change of attitude. Even if you don’t enjoy the pokies, others do.

More Police, Fewer Daft Ideas, The Answer To City Violence

Everybody has an idea how to fix the problem of “alcohol-fuelled” violence in the city. Last week, the Victorian Parliament tried another idea. It granted the liquor licensing authority $17.6million a year for 30 new “civil compliance inspectors” to patrol the city’s nightlife and fine pub owners. These inspectors can also enter premises without warrants if they suspect license breaches, and demand the names and addresses of patrons.

But surely there are certain legal powers in a liberal democracy that should be only held by the police? Police go through extensive education about the legal and practical limits of their powers. They are accountable to their superiors.

By contrast, the primary qualification that these new liquor inspectors require is the ability to pass a police check. They also apparently have to be of “good repute, character, honesty and integrity” – qualities that are hard to determine from a resume submitted via the internet. Should we be really giving such rudimentarily qualified bureaucrats a fair chunk of the powers of the police force?

Six months after the 2am lockout of Melbourne’s clubs and pubs resoundingly failed – late night violence went up during that period, not down – it is understandable that governments are trying new ideas to tackle the problem.

By far the most surreal idea to restrain city brawling has been Lord Mayor Robert Doyle’s recent proposal to make the hailing of taxis on the street illegal every Friday and Saturday night. He wants to direct all taxi-seekers to four giant taxi ranks around the city.

How this idea actually connects to the problem of violence isn’t entirely clear. Doyle’s plan appears to depend on the not entirely convincing theory that drunks would be less violent if they were all put in the same spot and told to wait for half an hour in a queue.

Other ideas to reduce violence are not much more convincing. Should we really ban the sale of single shots of liquor, as local governments have done in many smaller towns around the country? (Only if you believe that violent thugs exclusively drink Midori slammers.) Or should we stop people from purchasing more than a few drinks at a time, as they have done in NSW? (This rule effectively makes the Australian custom of buying rounds illegal.)

In fact, in NSW they are even stopping bars from serving alcohol for a 10-minute period every hour after midnight. In that 10-minute time-out, bar staff have to refuse any request for alcohol and offer water instead, even to those who lined up to be served well before the time-out began. Understandably, this policy tends to make drinkers more aggressive, not less.

Australians have a proud history of making a mockery of silly drinking laws – the legendary six o’clock swill was, after all, a massively counterproductive result of restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Getting around annoying regulations is just as much an Australian custom as buying rounds for mates.

Anyway, just because somebody comes up with an idea that will make buying alcohol harder, or more expensive, or just less fun, doesn’t mean that idea will prevent violent idiots from hitting each other at the end of the night.

If there’s one thing about Australian public debate, everybody has a lot of bright ideas – we don’t lack for initiatives or proposals or different ways to do things.

Every year small publishers release a few dozen books with titles like Reinventing Australia’s Green Future into the Next Century of Prosperity, or 27 Social Ideas for a Good Australia Now. These books are inevitably filled with possible new laws and government spending initiatives that are certainly creative, but are usually totally nuts.

Indeed, the only accomplishment of Kevin Rudd’s long-forgotten 2020 summit was to show just how many stupid ideas there actually were floating out there in intellectual-land – ideas that were vague, bizarre or, like the Lord Mayor’s taxi rank plan, completely disconnected from the problems they were trying to solve.

Government policies should be as direct as possible. The Government shouldn’t just arbitrarily punish drinkers and liquor licensees in the dreamy hope that the results will be politically beneficial.

While state and local governments have been dithering about with their own creative punishments for taxi hailers and pub owners, the most direct way to tackle violence still remains an increased police presence.

Unfortunately, like his predecessor Christine Nixon, new Chief Commissioner Simon Overland seems to believe that creative new regulations, not more police on the streets, will provide a solution to the city’s violence problem.

Sure, thinking outside the box is great. But when it comes to problems of law and order, don’t forget the box is there.

Submission to the Preventative Health Taskforce’s Discussion Paper “Australia: the healthiest country by 2020”

Executive Summary: The National Preventative Health Taskforce’s Discussion Paper: a) downplays the positive role individual choices can play in the health sphere, b) pays little attention to the rights of individuals to consume legal products of their choosing, and for commercial vendors to provide consumers with those legal products, c) fails to interrogate the extent to which the management of individual risk should be appropriated by the state, d) neglects to properly assess the evidence base of its policy prescriptions, and e) presents policies that fail to live up to the framework of evidence-based public policy.

Available in PDF here.

Ignore Meaningless Public Health Studies? I’ll Drink To That

Before you dig into your next serve of glistening Christmas ham, rich gravy and potatoes drenched in baked fat, and before you chug another glass of frustratingly warm rose, pause for a moment and think. What impact will your actions have on the nation’s aggregate productivity statistics? Could your second portion of brandy-smothered pudding be that final straw that pushes Australia’s OECD ranking below New Zealand’s?

These are the big questions the Government would like us to ask over the Christmas break. The Federal Government’s Preventative Health Taskforce – one of the higher-profile inquiries of the few dozen announced this year – wants to make individual overindulgence everybody’s problem.

According to the taskforce, obesity costs Australia $58.2billion a year, which makes you wonder why we don’t just keep all our money in an oatmeal tin where obesity can’t find it. This is a huge amount. The taskforce claims that the cost of alcohol abuse is a bit more modest – $15 billion – but that’s still a lot.

We are used to reading enormous numbers like that every day in the press. But for the most part, they consist of so many assumptions piled upon yet more assumptions that they are worthless.

One study last year claimed that Australia loses $2billion in productivity to email spam every year. The consultancy that published the study imagines that every millisecond Australians spend deleting spam emails is a millisecond that they aren’t extracting money from consumers. But, in reality, most employees find deleting spam a welcome distraction from refreshing Facebook.

So when the taskforce and the Government tell us that alcohol and obesity cost us the better part of $100 billion, what does that actually mean? Not that much.

It would be fair enough if the cost was limited to the direct cost of alcohol and obesity to the government. With a public health care system, taxpayers bear some of the costs of hospitalisation but, in defence of fat people and drunkards, they pay taxes too.

Anyway, the idea that we need to stop people overindulging because taxpayers pick up the tab has always seemed more like an argument against public health than an argument for banning junk food. Is a public health system incompatible with individuals making their own choices about what to eat?

These arguments are frequently overblown – in the case of drinking, the direct costs to the taxpayer are exceeded by the taxes on alcohol. Public health activists argue that obesity and alcohol are ripping dollars out of the Australian economy – as if we could figure out how much an overweight 50-year-old bank manager could have earned if he ate only salads. If we were all teetotal triathletes with doctorates in pure mathematics, the country’s productivity stats would be awesome.

Some of the other “costs” are even less grounded in reality. To derive the $15billion cost of alcohol, the taskforce adds up things like the cost of policing, property damage, insurance administration, and the lost productivity of those prisoners who may be locked up for crimes committed after drinking a six-pack. They even count the cost of lost household labour, as if instead of relaxing with a glass of wine in the evening everybody should be vacuuming the lounge room.

We can all imagine better choices other people could make. Yes, if the intern hadn’t been out till 5am, there wouldn’t have been that typo in the annual report. And perhaps instead of going to Friday after-work drinks we could all be inventing stuff. But that doesn’t mean we should blame alcohol for the intern’s lack of dedication or our lack of time machines.

There are costs incurred by every choice we make. If there weren’t costs, they wouldn’t be called “choices”, they’d just be “things we do”. But multiplying ridiculous assumptions in order to arrive at the largest possible number only obscures the real question at hand: is your fondness for cake anyone else’s business?

In a savvy political move, the taskforce plans to report back in the new year. No sane government would want to be caught nagging us during our cherished festival of gluttony and inebriation.

So every time you sip your Christmas coldie, a statistician updates a spreadsheet. But don’t worry too much about it – you’re having more fun than he is.

Get Off The Turps – Idiots Are The Problem, Not Alcohol

Hardly a weekend goes by without a heavily publicised nightclub bashing or brawl plastered all over the newspapers. Melbourne seems to have suddenly become a lawless combination of A Clockwork Orange — infested by teams of delinquents thumping each other and, presumably, killing homeowners with giant phallus sculptures — and Gangs of New York, with armies of the underclass engaging each other in battles along Flinders Street.

Indeed, once you cross into postcode 3000, there will be blood. State politicians and regulators have been having a great time allocating the blame for the recent upsurge in violence as widely as possible. Apparently, it’s all the pubs’ fault.

As Liquor Licensing director Sue Maclellan said earlier this week: “Licensees must accept some responsibility for this problem”. And Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Gary Jamieson knew exactly who was responsible for the fatal bashing of Matthew McEvoy last weekend — “the licensees themselves have a lot to answer for”. Nevertheless, the police still plan on prosecuting those who are accused of actually doing the killing.

If there is one lesson to be drawn from all this political outrage, it is that pouring a pot of beer has suddenly become the moral equivalent of throwing that pot at somebody’s face. But the problem with “alcohol-fuelled crimes” isn’t the alcohol — or the liquor licence holders who are legally allowed to sell it — it’s the “crimes”.

Contrary to the animated moral panicking of our more aggressive talk-radio hosts, alcohol is not the primary contributing factor behind the recent increase in late-night street fighting. Drinking doesn’t cause violence. Idiots cause violence.

After all, how many readers of The Sunday Age reach the end of a bottle of wine or their third beer and decide that their evening will only be complete if they can find somebody to sucker punch? A few hours in the pub probably isn’t enough to turn your average, mild-mannered tax accountant into Begbie from Trainspotting.

And as a country originally founded as a convict settlement, we should know better than most how to deal with an idiot problem. Beating late-night violence requires stronger law enforcement, not amendments to liquor regulation.

Yet the State Government has decided to focus its energy on dreaming up new restrictions for venues that hold liquor licences.

The imposition of the lockout on clubs, bars and pubs between 2am and 7am downgraded Melbourne from a world-class 24-hour city to a world-class 19-hour city — at least until Spring Street finally realised that it was doing nothing except angering young voters.

The Government might claim that the 2am lockout was a trial and that they are busily reviewing the results, but does anybody really believe that they would have ended the lockout if it had been a success?

Only slightly deterred by the lockout’s manifest failure, the State Government is now considering a complete ban on alcohol in strip clubs — after all, strip club patrons and their staff aren’t likely to march on State Parliament. It’s also looking at closing down some of the city’s biggest pubs and clubs.

Every so often, dubious research tries to blame violence on something else. Facebook, YouTube, mobile telephones and the internet in general have all recently been proclaimed to “cause” teen aggression. Melbourne City Council recently commissioned a report that claimed rising temperatures caused by climate change would turn Melbourne into a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

So by disingenuously trying to link Melbourne’s problem of violence with the Federal Government’s anti-binge-drinking morality tale, the State Government has done the city a disservice.

The idea that alcohol directly causes violence has become just another talking point in the political assault on the demon drink — wrapped up in the breathless moral outrage that characterises the supporters of the nanny state.

It might take a bit more than five borrowed Hummer four-wheel-drives to quieten the streets of the city. When the 2am lockout was first announced, the Police Association argued that police numbers were critically low across the state, by nearly 3000. Nevertheless, from the Government’s perspective it must seem easier to try to regulate away our law-and-order problems, scapegoating pubs and clubs for the violence.

But as one of the placards at the protest against the lockout put it: “Police, not policy.”

Don’t Close The Door On Our Envied Bar Culture

Premier John Brumby probably wasn’t expecting a backlash this big.

Nearly 30,000 distressed drinkers have signed just one of the many Facebook petitions opposing the 2am lockout — the Victorian Government’s new policy that will ban entry to bars, pubs and clubs in the inner city after 2am. And more than 6000 people have promised to angrily party on the steps of Parliament when the ban goes into force on June 3.

The lockout is being vigorously debated in street magazines and online music forums that would never think to debate the finer points of more “traditional” policy concerns such as means-tested baby bonuses or first-home buyers’ grants.

There is good reason for these protesters to be upset about the 2am lockout. It is a dramatic restriction on our freedom to go to our favourite venues that, in turn, want to have us as customers. The Government is obviously worried that the word “curfew” sounds a little too much like they fear a coup d’etat.

But even if you’re not convinced that we have been endowed with an inalienable right to party, the 2am lockout is still bad public policy.

Certainly, a lockout has precedents across the country. Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast has a lockout at 1.30am, Mackay locks patrons out at 2am, and Newcastle introduced a 3am lockout in March this year. In Victoria, Ballarat, Bendigo and Warrnambool all have lockouts in place.

In many of these cities, police claim that late-night violence has been reduced. But Brisbane has had a 3am lockout since 2005, and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital told a documentary film crew that it had seen no reduction in total assaults since the ban was enacted. The correlation between bar-hopping and violent assault may not be as simple as the Government would like.

In the absence of a clear model of cause and effect, the policy aims to restrict the behaviour of a huge number of Melburnians in the questionable hope that doing so will set off a chain reaction that ends in the pacification of a few violent idiots. But wishful thinking and guesswork rarely result in good policy.

The evidence from other cities reveals that violent behaviour late at night is clustered only around a few hot spots. In Wollongong, 67% of violent incidents are attributable to just six pubs. Identifying and closely policing these places would be a far more effective strategy to combat the violence than a lockout could ever be.

Unfortunately, haphazardly targeting all late night venues is clever politics. Whipping up fear in the community about violence in the street has always been an effective strategy to build political support. And imposing a lockout doesn’t require the Government to devote any extra resources to the problem. Lockouts don’t affect the state budget at all — the burden of administering the lockout falls squarely on the venues.

Furthermore, changes to liquor licences and lockouts target a group of people who do not have a strong electoral voice. Young people are not known for their skills as lobbyists.

While the 2am lockout has received the most media attention, it is only one part of the Government’s assault against late-night venues. Consumer Affairs Victoria quietly announced earlier this month a “freeze” on granting liquor licences that plan to trade after 1am.

This means that, at least for the next 12 months while the freeze is in place, there will be no new bars, clubs or pubs opening in the inner suburbs that can pour a late-night beer.

And any already operating venue that needs to alter its licence in some minor way — to build an outdoor smokers’ area, for instance, since smokers will no longer be able to go outside pubs after 2am without being locked out — will only be able to apply for a new licence that is loaded with the 1am limit.

Like many regulatory increases, these sorts of burdens disproportionately hurt small businesses, which do not have the resources to lobby for exemptions or the financial slack to adjust to the new regulations.

It all adds up to a major attack on Melbourne’s hole-in-the-wall bar culture — a culture that only a few months ago Sydney was enviously eyeballing.

It would be sad if in the future we had to fly to NSW to find the nightlife we have so long been enjoying at home.

Put A Cork In It, Mr Rudd – You’re Missing The Point

Very quickly, Kevin Rudd has set the tone for his first term. His is a government that doesn’t just want to govern, it wants to parent.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced earlier this week that the taxes on alcopops – canned or bottled spirits premixed with soft drink – were to be doubled.

The tax increase was announced as a response to the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. But the survey reported that not only has binge-drinking among young females remained steady over the past few years, but the number of those who were endangering their long-term health had actually decreased slightly. If there is a binge-drinking crisis, as the Government claims, then it appears to be one which is resolving itself.

Nevertheless, since the federal election, booze has become a bread-and-butter issue of high politics. But the Government’s policy is based on a big leap of logic. Why will raising the price of alcopops result in healthier teenagers? Invariably, government policies have consequences unintended by the politicians who design them.

Certainly, the tax increase might reduce the amount of alcopops sold. Like most products, the demand for alcopops is elastic – that is, if the price goes up, some people who would have bought the drinks at a lower price may now choose not to. But those customers for whom the pre-mixed drinks are now too expensive can easily replace them with other alcoholic beverages. There is no shortage of choice in your average neighbourhood bottle shop.

After all, for a teenager looking to spend an evening drinking with friends, the choice isn’t between alcopops and a healthy glass of water. Would, for instance, the Federal Government prefer teenage children to try to mix their own drinks? It is not easy to estimate the safe ratio of spirits to soft drink while you are at a loud and crowded house party, slightly tipsy and leaning over a kitchen bench trying to pour cheap vodka into a plastic cup.

When alcohol is bottled in premeasured quantities, it is easy for teenagers to gauge just how much they are drinking. The Federal Government might be making it harder for teenagers to regulate their own alcohol consumption. If even a single teenager has to get their stomach pumped because they now have no idea how much they’re drinking, this policy will have been an abject failure.

When teenagers are unable to afford pre-mixed drinks, they will move on to their next choice of alcohol. If politicians increase the tax on every alcoholic beverage – as the Government’s advisers are publicly recommending – then teens may move to taking other, non-alcoholic drugs when they are socialising.

There is another possible unintended consequence of the tax increase that is even more worrying. When a new range of pre-mixed drinks was released earlier this decade, alcohol manufacturers asserted that young drinkers felt safer drinking out of bottles because they were harder to spike with date-rape drugs.

That claim may or may not be true. But it should at the very least remind us that when teenagers choose to buy their alcohol pre-mixed, they often do so for complex and personal reasons – not merely because they have been conned into doing so by stylish ad campaigns.

The alcopop tax increase is the first to come into effect of the many sin taxes that have been flagged by the new Government and its advisory bodies. The federal preventative health task force has now called for taxes on all alcohol to be increased by 300%, and a similar increase to be imposed on tobacco taxes. And the best and brightest summiteers were eager that the Government tax junk food.

When you add to this list last month’s proposed bans on alcohol and candy advertising, it becomes clear that few individual decisions are immune from the disapproval of the Rudd Government.

The left used to ridicule John Howard’s attraction to the moral universe of the 1950s. But the Labor Party is trying to introduce a new moral code that is just as severe – one which is designed to scare parents into supporting the Government’s policies. Don’t worry – Kevin Rudd is working just as hard to look after your children as you are.

But this anti-binge drinking campaign is not very well thought out. Artificially changing people’s behaviour isn’t that easy. Too often it makes the original problem worse.

Nanny State Ad Bans Won’t Stop Kids Liking Junk Food

It used to be that if the government didn’t like something, it would ban it. Now, if the government disapproves of a product, it just bans it from being advertised.

A Senate committee is currently examining the feasibility of restricting advertisements for alcohol, and Kevin Rudd has expressed interest in making such a measure part of his binge drinking campaign.

Similarly, the Australian Medical Association wants to ban junk food advertising during children’s TV shows. Advertising restrictions are the new coolest thing for paternalistic policy-makers and their nanny state.

But are we that easily manipulated by brand managers and advertising firms? Does the Government have to step in to protect us, and our children, from harmful ads? Advertising is, at its core, just the simple delivery of information. Those who oppose it are essentially arguing that this information is too challenging for individuals to process safely; that, if told the wrong thing, they will be unable to resist self-harm.

The anti-capitalist Naomi Klein famously took this argument one step further when she decried the psychological power of corporate brands – we are all, apparently, oppressed by tyrannical graphic designers. Mining would be finally recognised as the environmental catastrophe it is if only everybody wasn’t so disorientated by BHP’s trendy looking bubble logo.

This view does not just reduce us to the level of dumb automatons, passively waiting for advertising executives to beam their instructions directly into our brains, it also creates a profound dilemma for democratic politics. If we don’t have free will in the shopping centre, we certainly don’t have free will in the voting booth. And figuring out which political party would be better for interest rates is far more complex than figuring out which brand of shampoo to buy.

Nevertheless, most people acknowledge that adults are sensibly sceptical about marketing claims.What is surprising is just how advertising savvy children are.

Minors are depicted by policy-makers as unable to defend themselves against a well-planned onslaught of marketing. However, as the new book Prohibitions published by Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs shows, children as young as five form preferences about their favourite TV programs. And by the age of 11, children demonstrate a pronounced scepticism about claims made in ads.

During the federal election campaign, anti-advertising rhetoric took a decidedly surreal turn. In response to the Labor Party’s dislike of Shrek-themed merchandising, the Howard government promised to fund a new ABC channel for children completely free of junk food ads. It was a bizarre train of thought that led Liberal policy-makers to think that the best way to combat childhood obesity was to make sitting on the couch and watching TV more appealing.

The belief that an individual’s free will is crushed under the jackboot of catchy advertising jingles is, of course, nonsense. We have just as much autonomy over our personal decisions as we did before an ad break.

So what, then, is advertising for? It informs us that new products are available in the marketplace. We may, after having watched an ad, have a different idea of what our next purchase may be. But that isn’t because we have been manipulated by a ruthless marketing department.

An ad that informs us that McDonald’s now sells salad only interests those people who would probably like to buy a salad from McDonald’s. If the preference for salad doesn’t already exist, then no ad, no matter how brilliant, is going to be effective.

This logic is fairly obvious. What child is going to abandon chocolates and lollies when their ads disappear off television? Kids will always like junk food. Any parents who think that a government ban will make walking up the chocolate aisle less stressful are deceiving themselves. And anybody who thinks that teenagers will refuse the next “alcopop” just because they are no longer being specifically marketed to under-25s has forgotten a lot about their youth.

Politicians and activists are attracted to the theory that advertising manipulates consumers. It gives them yet another reason to regulate the media, and a way to appear to be doing something about the latest health scare. But they won’t change our behaviour. Instead, politicians should face the hideous truth – people are smarter than advertisements.