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More than a decade after his crusade for better school dinners, the TV chef is now aiming his guns at sugary drinks for children. And a good thing too

Jamie Oliver is back on screen this week, waging “absolute war” on sugar in a one-hour Channel 4 documentary, Jamie’s Sugar Rush, and I couldn’t be more delighted. Not only have I missed his campaigning presence; at this precise moment he is just what the doctor, the dentist, the public health professional and the global food expert ordered.

It’s hard to believe that it’s a decade since his school dinners campaign. This is partly because I can still hear his exasperated tones as he pleaded with the nation to stop feeding their kids junk. Nobody does outrage quite like Oliver.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen Sugar Rush yet, but I feel confident enough that it won’t be a turkey (twizzler). For one thing, the Jamie Oliver brand is nothing if not consistent and, second, this polemic has great ingredients.

It will expose the true cost of sugar (particularly sugar-sweetened drinks) on global health and connect this to the fact that we now have 700 amputations per year in the UK from diabetes. It will help explain why childhood obesity rates have risen so dramatically within a generation: in the US, where a third of children are overweight or obese, the average weight of a child has risen by more than 5kg in three decades. And it will show how a “soda tax” in Mexico has, it seems, helped stop the rot of soaring incidences of diabetes in the land once dubbed “Mexicoke”.

So in the style of a pay-per-view boxing match, Sugar Rush is being billed as the comeback. “If school dinners was Star Wars, this is The Empire Strikes Back,” says Oliver, the sort of quote that explains his perennial appeal to a mass audience.

But he’s not so appealing to the food and drink industry. So far, its rebuttal to Oliver’s comeback campaign has been predictable. Ian Wright, a spokesman for the Food and Drink Federation, told the Grocer magazine: “It’s up to parents to decide what kids watch and what they eat and it’s certainly not up to self-appointed but ill-judged characters like Jamie Oliver.” He further argued that the Oliver manifesto would be a “curtailment of freedom and personal responsibility. The world will have gone mad if we have a TV chef deciding health policy. What’s next, would we have economic policy decided by Ian Beale?”

It’s a silly thing to say. Ian Beale (from EastEnders) is a fictional character for starters, but Wright is worth quoting in full because it illustrates the type of backlash Oliver can expect when he wades into this territory. He is cast as the delusional king of the new puritans, a killjoy, just another “TV chef” on a failed crusade.

It won’t wash. Not only is Oliver very good at this stuff but he’s extremely well liked. Neither does he seem unduly concerned by coming across as paternalistic (another charge). Indeed he rather delights in playing the “dad card” in campaigns.

So it was when he was settling down with his many offspring to watch Britain’s Got Talent that he noticed there wasn’t much water going on during the ad breaks. Instead they were full of fizzy-drink commercials. As part of his Sugar Rush manifesto, he’s calling for the regulation of adverts during shows with big child audiences.

 First lady Michelle Obama in a yoga session for her “Let’s Move” campaign last year. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
 First lady Michelle Obama in a yoga session for her Let’s Move campaign last year. Photograph: Joel Auerbach/AP
To write off a campaign like this as an ego-driven crusade or ill-judged and irrelevant is a big mistake. In the US, critics did the same with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move programme, some framing it as a little crusade by the first lady. In fact it was a lot smarter than that, a way of shifting a subsidy programme to change food consumption patterns but with huge popular appeal.

I have a feeling this TV chef is more strategic than you might think. Sugar Rush is produced by Oliver’s own company, Fresh One Productions, and it’s well versed in the politics of sugar, having made The Men Who Made Us Fat with Jacques Peretti in 2012.

This time it has brought out the big gun, Oliver, because behind the scenes the timing is right for a victory. For too long the obesity crisis has been a cause of huge frustration for public health campaigners and experts, who are finding it almost impossible to get the kind of policy interventions they need to make a dent.

At every turn the initiatives that could make a difference seem to be thwarted by a globalised food industry run by transnational corporations and at the service of foreign capital, aided and abetted by World Trade Organisation rules.

As Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organisation, put it: “It’s not just Big Tobacco any more, public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation and protect themselves by using the same tactics, including lobbying lawsuits, promises of self-regulation and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.”

It seems there’s a correlation between increased waistlines, rotten teeth and trade liberalisation. (Researchers point out that countries such as Japan, Norway and South Korea, which have maintained higher import tariffs, have relatively lower levels of obesity compared to more liberalised countries.)

The worry is that this is only the beginning. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (a proposed agreement between the EU and US aimed at creating the world’s biggest free-trade zone, spanning the north Atlantic) runs the real risk of reducing the ability of future governments to regulate for healthier food systems by, in effect, prohibiting regulation that could hit the profits for foreign investors.

These are not very televisual issues – a Jamie Oliver campaign on Big Soda is, however. He has the ability to wrap all of this up into a sort of spicy taco and feed it to us in manageable chunks. A swathe of health experts in the UK is on his side. In July the scientific advisory committee on nutrition (Scan) recommended that average intake of added sugar should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy for age groups from two years upwards.

Current average levels in the UK are around 12%. There’s only one way to get to Scan’s level: dramatic dietary changes. And it would seem there’s only one way to get dramatic dietary changes: policy changes. This flies in the face of the government’s current flagship policy, the public health responsibility deal, which allows the food and drink industry to regulate itself.

Something needs to give, so it’s a great time for Oliver to make good on his promise to be a “pain in the arse” about getting a 20p tax per litre of sugar-sweetened drink. He’s already been to chat to David Cameron about it.

As is required in TV land, in interviews for the programme Oliver has been talking up the jeopardy that the genre relies on. “I have picked a really hard one,” he said. “It could be a complete waste of my time and I’ll get an arse-kicking. But is it worth getting a kicking over? Yes. This is not a spectator sport. I’m hoping to be a pain in the arse to the government. Amazing things could happen if it goes well.” Indeed they could.
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