A pub­lic snack­ing ban might seem ex­treme but the health cri­sis de­mands it

The National - News - - OPINION - GAVIN ESLER Gavin Esler is a jour­nal­ist, au­thor and pre­sen­ter

Sit­ting in a Lon­don cin­ema at the start of a new film, the fam­ily next to me tore into pack­ets of crisps, peanuts, pop­corn and smelly tuna sand­wiches. They popped open fizzy drinks and what was sup­posed to be a cin­ema be­came, for them, a restau­rant too.

On a Lon­don bus one af­ter­noon, school­boys climbed on board with boxes of fried chicken. They tucked into their mid-af­ter­noon snack, pre­sum­ably on their way home for din­ner.

I’m not sure how much snack­ing goes on in cin­e­mas, trains and buses around the world but it has be­come a hot po­lit­i­cal topic in Britain. The UK is now a fat na­tion, with obe­sity short­en­ing lives by about three years on av­er­age.

Pro­fes­sor Dame Sally Davies, Eng­land’s out­go­ing chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer, has called for a ban on eat­ing and drink­ing on pub­lic trans­port. Cue out­rage from some tabloid news­pa­pers that the “nanny state” is telling peo­ple what to do. But Prof Davies – the “nanny-in-chief”, as the tabloids call her – is mak­ing a sci­en­tif­i­cally rig­or­ous, even if po­lit­i­cally per­ilous, point.

She is not alone. Glob­ally, our in­creas­ingly seden­tary lives and poor di­ets are lead­ing to an obe­sity prob­lem. In the UAE, up to 40 per cent of chil­dren are over­weight or obese, ac­cord­ing to health au­thor­i­ties. Doc­tors in the UAE have be­come in­creas­ingly wor­ried about what some see as an obe­sity cri­sis, with life­style choices lead­ing to heart dis­ease, type 2 di­a­betes and other pre­ventable ail­ments.

The UAE has re­sponded with hefty taxes – 100 per cent on tobacco and 50 per cent on sug­ary drinks – but much more has to be done.

In Britain, one in three chil­dren aged be­tween 10 and 11 is over­weight and one in five is obese, ac­cord­ing to re­cent gov­ern­ment fig­ures. Be­ing fat was his­tor­i­cally a sign of wealth.

Now it tends to be a sign of be­ing poor. Den­tists com­plain about an epi­demic of very young chil­dren hav­ing their rot­ten teeth ex­tracted be­cause par­ents fill in­fant feed bot­tles with sug­ary drinks. “To­day’s chil­dren are drown­ing in a flood of un­healthy food and drink op­tions, com­pounded by in­suf­fi­cient op­por­tu­ni­ties for be­ing ac­tive,” Prof Davies says. “I want to see our chil­dren’s health, not com­pa­nies’ prof­its, put at the fore­front of gov­ern­ment pol­icy. It is ev­ery child’s right to live in a world that pro­motes, not harms, their health.”

What we eat is a per­sonal choice. But the con­se­quences for wider so­ci­ety and health­care sys­tems mean that per­sonal choices about eat­ing are also a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal con­cern.

Fig­ures from the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD) show that obe­sity cuts Bri­tish GDP by 3.4 per cent and costs the health­care sys­tem an ex­tra £409 (Dh1,886) a year for ev­ery tax­payer.

World­wide, there is “an ur­gent eco­nomic and so­cial case to scale up in­vest­ments to tackle obe­sity,” ac­cord­ing to the OECD sec­re­tary gen­eral An­gel Gur­ria.

So what should gov­ern­ments do? Ed­u­ca­tion and tax­a­tion are two pos­si­bil­i­ties.

So is co­er­cion, in­clud­ing ban­ning snack­ing on pub­lic trans­port, as Prof Davies sug­gests. Food com­pa­nies, es­pe­cially those pro­duc­ing snacks which con­trib­ute to obe­sity, in­evitably re­sist changes which hit prof­its. They of­ten mar­ket their prod­ucts by as­so­ci­at­ing them with health, fit­ness and sport. But that is now be­ing chal­lenged. There is a row about a snack com­pany spon­sor­ing a Bri­tish cricket com­pe­ti­tion in which they pro­vide teams with shirts that ad­ver­tise their prod­ucts. And Britain has in­tro­duced a soft drinks in­dus­try levy, a sugar tax on the sweet­est drinks sold.

Such taxes are re­sisted by the in­dus­try, even though the con­sump­tion of cola and other sweet drinks can lead not just to obe­sity but also to type 2 di­a­betes.The food in­dus­try funds PR lob­by­ists and sup­posed think tanks to ar­gue that the sugar tax falls mostly on the poor­est among us.

That might be true but it is ir­rel­e­vant. As with tobacco taxes, sugar taxes will in­evitably fall on those whose health is most at risk, and taxes change be­hav­iour. Low taxes can act as an in­cen­tive, high taxes as a dis­in­cen­tive. If high sugar taxes im­prove a na­tion’s health but hit com­pany prof­its, then per­haps com­pa­nies need to change their prod­ucts and think more about hav­ing wider so­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties be­yond sales fig­ures.

As Tam Fry, chair­man of the UK’s Na­tional Obe­sity Coun­cil, pointed out in a let­ter to The Times news­pa­per, a ban on smok­ing at work in Britain was hugely con­tro­ver­sial when it was first in­tro­duced. But to­day any­one smok­ing in an of­fice is re­garded not just as rude and ec­cen­tric but a health haz­ard and a law-breaker.

Clearly a ban on snack­ing on pub­lic trans­port would be prob­lem­atic. Would it be sen­si­ble or en­force­able on long train or bus jour­neys? What about those – in­clud­ing young chil­dren – who might need to eat of­ten?

I have my doubts whether Prof Davies has the best so­lu­tion to the obe­sity cri­sis but she has cer­tainly high­lighted a se­ri­ous and grow­ing prob­lem. Food man­u­fac­tur­ers some­times lec­ture us that it is fine to eat junk food as part of a bal­anced diet.

But those who are obese or head­ing for di­a­betes are of­ten not eat­ing a bal­anced diet. And if tax­a­tion and ed­u­ca­tion make our chil­dren health­ier, that is a price worth pay­ing. As for those eat­ing smelly tuna sand­wiches in the cin­ema, gov­ern­ments have no so­lu­tion. I changed seats.

If tax­a­tion and ed­u­ca­tion force peo­ple to be health­ier, the stick ap­proach might be a price worth pay­ing

Sammy Dal­lal / The Na­tional

UK chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer Sally Davies has called for a ban on snack­ing on pub­lic trans­port

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