Obe­sity pol­icy pro­vides slim pick­ings

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

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?

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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