Obesity policy provides slim pickings
IT had been a long morning around the board table and the generous plates of biscuits were now empty. Those piled high with healthy fruit, however, remained piled high. The lure of the cookie had trumped every health warning, plus the 99-calorie count emblazoned in big letters on each Breakaway. It even overcame blatant choice editing: ‘healthy’ bananas were innocent of any label, disguising the fact that each was 22 calories more than a biscuit.
Once again, ingrained preference had overcome rational assessment, even when supported by politically correct encouragement. This scenario illustrates just how difficult the battle against obesity is. If the educated and knowledgeable won’t resist, what hope for the less informed?
The UK is getting fatter all the time and leaving the rest of Europe in its wake as it closely follows the US. At the present rate, half our population will be seriously overweight in less than two decades. It’s already a major cause of disease and a huge drain on the National Health Service. Dress sizes have been recalibrated to save embarrassment, airline seats widened to accommodate the bigger backside and hotel beds strengthened to carry the weight of ever-fatter guests. It’s a genuine crisis and yet the Government’s response has been minimal.
Rightly, they tried the voluntary approach first. Industry agreed to cut down sugar content, reformulate products and reduce portion size. There was a responsibility pact and major food producers stepped up to the mark, hoping that regulation would prove unnecessary. Sadly, it hasn’t worked. Good companies have acted, but others have taken advantage. The Government therefore promised a major policy shift to turn the tide, but the announcement was delayed and delayed and, finally, a significantly emasculated version was sneaked out in August.
The result was greeted with almost universal condemnation. Businesses wanted a level playing field—regulations that raised standards for all, not just for the responsible—and health campaigners wanted advertising restrictions and proper coherence between the codes for television and the rest of the media. Children’s advocates pointed to the continuing problem of ‘pester power’, when supermarkets and petrol stations place sweets exactly in a child’s line of vision. None of these concerns were met.
Instead, more voluntarism, some action on the content of school meals and a renewed promise that the proceeds from the coming tax on sugared drinks would be used to promote exercise in schools. That’s not much, after months of consultation, research and evidence gathering, all of which pointed to the need for decisive action, effective regulation and a programme aimed particularly at countering obesity in children.
The food industry deserves better from a Tory Government; it ought to be on the side of responsible companies, which want a system that doesn’t hand the advantage to their less-particular competitors. Parents have a right to demand that their children aren’t targeted by sophisticated television advertising and shelf-stacking systems specifically designed to tempt the very young and, before that, from anti-natal clinics to domiciliary visits, the NHS must help mothers to feed their babies, not fatten them— the first six months of a baby’s life are vital.
Above all, the taxpayer must insist that the Government acts to avoid placing unsupportable demands on the NHS. If obesity were an infectious disease, the State would use every one of its agencies to counter the threat. It should do no less in fighting this devastating modern killer.
‘If the educated and knowledgeable won’t resist, what hope for the less informed?
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