John Humphrys - Fat or fit, who decides? 

May 20, 2022, 11:03 AM GMT+0

A casual observer might think the government has more than enough battles to fight as we start the countdown to the next election: not least raging inflation and a cost of living crisis that threatens to be the worst in many decades. So why is it choosing to pick another fight over how fat we are? Or, rather, why is it refusing to bring in measures designed to help us get slimmer – especially children? Measures it had already suggested it would support. Measures that have the approval of pretty much every food expert in the land. Could it be that it’s scared of the supermarkets who sell the junk food or could it be that it has rediscovered the old Conservative belief that politicians have no right to tell us how to live our lives or bring up our children even if those measures are indisputably going to make them healthier? In other words might it be the spectre of the nanny state returning to haunt the party?

There are several indisputable facts in this debate. One is that Britain is the obesity capital of Europe. A new study from Cancer Research UK suggests that by 2040 some 21 million people will be obese. That compares with 15 million today. It means that the number of fat people is likely to exceed those who are of healthy weight. And if you add in the number who may not be obese but are ‘just’ overweight the figure is 42 million. That’s seven people out of every ten. When I was a small boy (admittedly rather a long time ago) nobody used the word ‘obese’. We said ‘fat’. There was only one fat kid in my class of forty. He happened to be the son of the local butcher. Fat people were a rarity. In the Boer War about half of all volunteers to Britain's armed forces were rejected on medical grounds. Not because they were obese. Precisely the opposite. They were under-nourished. Today one in five children are obese by the age of 11. Their chances of living a long and healthy life are reduced with every extra fizzy drink or portion of junk food they swallow.

Which takes us to another indisputable fact. Obesity is a killer and costs the NHS a fortune in the losing battle to combat its effects. The respected restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, who was charged by the government with producing a national food strategy, showed in his report published last year that obesity as a result of poor diets is leading to tens of thousands of premature deaths each year. Within the next decade or so the NHS will spend far more treating type 2 diabetes than every form of cancer. Delaying this plan, according to Cancer Research UK, “would be delaying progress in helping people maintain a healthy weight and risks exacerbating health inequalities”.

And here’s another indisputable fact. The single biggest reason why we are so fat is that we eat too much of the wrong sort of food. Above all processed food. The sort of food that is advertised relentlessly. It’s cheap to manufacture and relatively cheap to buy – and it is packed with everything that’s bad for us: fat, salt and sugar. Because it is vanishingly low in nutritional value it takes a great deal of it to satisfy our appetite. So we eat ever more of the stuff.

It is, in every sense a vicious circle. A deadly vicious circle. The government has acknowledged that junk food is a potential killer and it produced a strategy to tackle it. A modest strategy but, it was generally agreed, a sensible first step. Now, at the last minute, it has back-tracked on two of the important promises it made in the wake of the Dimbleby report. One was to ban BOGOFS: the “Buy One Get One Free” deals beloved by the big retailers. Another was to impose a watershed of 9.00 pm on television commercials advertising the worst sort of junk food and aimed specifically at children. Now it has announced that instead of taking effect immediately those measures will be delayed until 2024.

The reasoning seems to be that it will give the government a chance to assess the impact of the measures at a time when there is so much pressure on household incomes and prices are rocketing. It’s true that the latest consumer price inflation has risen to 9 per cent. But the government’s critics – including some of the most senior figures in the party – say it’s nonsense to believe that delaying a ban on promoting junk food will help the worst off. They say the opposite is true. Academic research shows that junk food ‘special offers’ including BOGOFS actually encourage people to buy more than they had intended. According to one former cabinet minister, allowing these offers to persist will not give consumers more money but will instead shrink their wallets and expand their waistlines.

The Times has said in an editorial that there is no single policy that can reverse the trend, but that is no reason to delay introducing measures that can help. It continued: ‘The key is how an obesity strategy is implemented, and how far it can change a culture in which the risks of obesity are not well signalled. Better food labelling, including calorie counts on restaurant menus, restrictions on sale and advertising, and better dietary education all have a role to play. For the government to tarry is to imply that obesity is not that important. The costs of any such message will be profound and enduring.’

As The Times acknowledges, the government is very well aware of all those facts. Indeed, it says, ministers have told us time and again that it will do everything in its power to help us slim down. Hence the promise to ban BOGOFS and impose a 9.00 pm watershed on junk food commercials that target children. So why this unexpected delay to such important regulations?

The most obvious explanation is pressure from Conservative MPs who believe a Conservative government has no business interfering in the free market and telling the retail sector how to run their stores. Or indeed telling people what they should be eating and what they should be feeding their children. It is, in short, the dread of the nanny state. Some reportedly threatened to write letters of no confidence in Boris Johnson unless he backtracked.

Conservative politicians who take the opposite view point out that it is possible to support freedom of choice but at the same time recognise that it is sometimes necessary to prevent consumers being abused or misled, which is why we have laws on labelling, standards and monopolies. That’s the view of the former party leader William Hague. He says MPs who have pressed for the dilution of the obesity strategy are profoundly mistaken. He adds: ‘People have not made a voluntary choice to become obese. Food companies have an overwhelming incentive to design products that lead us ever further down this chemically induced addiction to foods that make us overweight, more prone to disease, and less able to work and enjoy life to the full. This is not freedom. People do not sit down and say, “I know I should eat better but on the whole I think it would be fun to be grossly overweight”. They are stuck in the cycle and so are the producers feeding them.’

Where do you stand in this debate? Do you share the optimism of those who say some of the interventions made by successive governments are actually working? The levy on the sugar content of fizzy drinks, for instance, has led to many more drinks being bought that have much lower sugar contents and you may believe the food industry will eventually mend its ways if we offer encouragement rather than threats? Or do you agree with Henry Dimbleby that we are ‘trapped in the junk food cycle’ and we must have stricter regulations if we are to end it? And what about your own diets? Time to cut the carbs maybe?

Let us know.

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