Labour is lying through its teeth about children’s health

No, British kids are not obese, stunted troglodytes with rotten teeth.

Christopher Snowdon

Topics Politics UK

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The bad news is that UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is ‘up for the fight’ over accusations that Labour is embracing ‘the nanny state’. The good news is that he doesn’t know what the nanny state is. When most people think of the nanny state, they think of government paternalism towards adults. Starmer thinks it has something to do with getting kids to brush their teeth.

It should go without saying that paternalism – and maternalism for that matter – is perfectly appropriate when it comes to children. Labour wants to create a ‘national supervised toothbrushing programme for three- to five-year-olds’ to be paid for by taxing non-doms. Some people will argue that teaching kids to brush their teeth is the responsibility of parents. Others will argue that some parents are stupid and feckless. Still others will ask how the relatively small sum of money that will come from abolishing non-dom status is able to cover an endless succession of spending pledges.

Learning to brush your teeth is more useful than a lot of things young children are taught at school. And Starmer is right to identify it as the best and perhaps only way to prevent tooth decay. His scheme is only going to cost £9million a year and it won’t infringe on the rights of adults, so I don’t really care either way. I am more concerned by Starmer’s support for the incremental ban on smoking and the ban on so-called junk-food advertising. I am also concerned that Starmer appears to believe that British children are a bunch of podgy, stunted troglodytes with rotten teeth, as this is simply not true.

‘I was genuinely shocked’, said Starmer, ‘to learn that the most common cause of [hospital] admission for six- to 10-year-olds is decaying teeth which have to be extracted. That is shocking.’ Is it though? It would be shocking if the most common cause of hospital admissions among children were gunshot wounds or leukaemia or road accidents. But it is difficult to think of a more trivial reason to go to hospital than having a tooth pulled out, especially when these are often baby teeth, which fall out anyway. If the last Labour government hadn’t banned dentists from using general anaesthetic, and if dentists were less reluctant to do NHS work, there would be far fewer children going to hospital for tooth extraction. It is arguably a waste of hospital resources caused by excessive regulation. It is certainly not indicative of a tooth-decay epidemic.

‘The dental health of the majority of British children has improved dramatically since the early 1970s’, according to a 2005 study, which also noted that ‘levels of dental decay in UK children at five and 12 years are among the lowest in the world’. The data are a bit patchy, but we know that the number of 12-year-olds who exhibit clear signs of tooth decay plummeted from 81 per cent in 1983 to 28 per cent in 2013. Tooth decay among 15-year-olds was almost universal in 1983, with 93 per cent exhibiting clear signs of the problem. By 2013, this had fallen to 42 per cent. These improvements seem to have continued. Recently published figures show that the proportion of five-year-olds exhibiting visible tooth decay dropped from 30.9 per cent in 2008 to 23.7 per cent in 2022. The nation’s teeth are far from perfect, but childhood tooth decay is a problem that is spiralling downwards, not upwards.

According to the Telegraph, Labour launched its public-health plans by highlighting research that shows ‘British children are fatter, shorter and far less happy than their peers… Health experts have said the modern diet, with heavy reliance on junk food, means many children are growing up malnourished, stunting their height.’ Starmer himself claims that ‘stunted growth’ is ‘the reality of Tory Britain’.

Is a diet of ultra-processed food somehow making British children shorter? No. Between 1989 and 2019, the average height of five-year-old boys rose from 111.6cm to 112.5cm, and the average height of five-year-old girls rose from 111.1cm to 111.7cm. The claim about stunted growth is based on children in some other countries growing even faster and the UK therefore falling down the international rankings. It seems likely that one reason for this is that 30 per cent of babies born in Britain have a mother who was not born in Britain, and a fair share of these women came from countries that are not renowned for producing lanky children, India and Pakistan being the most common. Be that as it may, it is a stretch to describe the tallest generation of British children in history as ‘stunted’.

As for them being ‘fatter than their peers’, I have written ad nauseam about how the UK’s childhood-obesity statistics have been fiddled to present a picture that bears no resemblance to reality. They cannot be compared to other countries because they are not measuring the same thing. When a more realistic measure is used and applied equally to all countries, the UK has the 81st-highest rate of childhood obesity in the world. (The Telegraph article is conscientious enough to show these figures, even while parroting the lie that ‘22.7 per cent of children in England are obese by the time they finish primary school’.)

The launch of the Labour Party’s Child Health Action Plan this week may have received less media attention if Sir Keir had said that British children are taller than ever, have better teeth than ever and are pretty average compared with children in other countries, but it is nevertheless the truth.

Christopher Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also the co-host of Last Orders, spiked’s nanny-state podcast.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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