Lecturing people on how to live a healthy life can be counterproductive unless individuals can be persuaded to change their behavior, new health minister Andrew Lansley said Wednesday.
He said the coalition government's policy on improving diet, cutting smoking and reducing alcohol abuse would be driven by evidence of what worked, signaling a less interventionist approach to public health.
He criticized the ousted Labor government's attempt to tackle climbing childhood obesity by raising the quality of food at state-funded schools, following a television campaign by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Lansley, a Conservative party member of the coalition which came to power in May, said the Jamie Oliver experiment had actually resulted in fewer children eating school meals.
"There is a risk if we constantly are lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do, we will actually find that we might undermine and be counterproductive in the results that we achieve," Lansley told doctors at the British Medical Association in Brighton, southeast England.
"Jamie Oliver, quite rightly, was talking about trying to improve the diet of children in schools and improving school meals. What was the net effect? Actually the number of children eating school meals in many of these places didn't go up, it went down."
Lansley said this had sparked a chain of further attempts to control what children ate.
"So then the schools said 'If you are bringing packed lunches, that's OK but we've got to determine what's in your packed lunches, we've got to decide what's in them.'
"To which the parents' response was that they gave children money and actually children are spending more money outside school, on buying snacks in local shops, than they are actually spending on school lunches or on their packed lunches.
"The net result of that is, somebody says the next thing we must do is we must ban shops near schools. Where do we end up with this?"
Lansley said the government had to find new ways of encouraging people to take responsibility for their health.
"We have to understand that this is a behavior-change program we're engaged in and if behavior doesn't change, our likelihood is that we will fail."
The School Food Trust, a government agency tasked with improving children's meals, said the number of pupils eating school lunches had risen in the past two years after decades of decline, following the introduction of nutritional standards.
It said there had been a dip in the take-up of school meals following Oliver's television campaign in 2005, but that this was probably because of the publicity the celebrity chef gave to the poor quality of food on offer at the time.
"They went down because people thought 'I don't want my kids eating Turkey Twizzlers,'" a spokeswoman for the agency said, referring to spiral strips of processed meat that were a regular feature of many schools' menus and were derided in Oliver's television series.
One in six of children in England were classed as obese in 2008, while only 20 percent were eating the recommended five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day.