Public Health News: Government urged to take tough action on obesity 'epidemic'

 

Obesity-related conditions will cost employers £490m a year by 2025

A third (35%) of women and almost half (48%) of men will be obese by 2030, unless the Government stops shirking responsibility for an obesity “epidemic”, according to a landmark report published in The Lancet.

The report builds on the theory of “passive obesity” promulgated in the Foresight report published in the UK four years ago, which suggests that obesity is not caused by laziness or overeating, but by an “obesogenic” environment in which it is far easier to gain weight than lose it. For example, the marketing of highly processed foods and an environment which requires less physical exercise.

“Undoubtedly the final decision to consume a particular food or beverage, or to exercise or not, is an individual decision,” reads the report, the result of a four year international collaboration by experts from a range of disciplines. “However, to negotiate the complexity of the environment and the choices it poses, many of these decisions are automatic or subconscious”.

Given the impact of obesity – it is linked to type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and many cancers – and cost – obesity-related diseases will cost the UK £45.5 billion per year by 2050 – the authors argue that it is the Government’s responsibility to take tough action.

Approaches that have been shown to be cost effective include bans on advertising unhealthy food to children and taxes on unhealthy food and drinks. However, governments have proved “slow” to adopt them in the face of opposition from industry. For example, “traffic light” labelling on food, contested by manufacturers, has been rejected.

“Governments have largely abdicated the responsibility for addressing obesity to individuals, the private sector, and non-governmental organisations, yet the obesity epidemic will not be reversed without government leadership, regulation, and investment in programmes, monitoring, and research,” reads the report, which points out that “nowhere has the obesity epidemic been reversed by public health means”.

The UK Government has stated its intention to focus heavily on public health as a means of tackling healthcare costs but favours collaboration with industry, which has caused it to clash with the medical profession. Ministers have focused mainly on encouraging the public to make healthier choices (such as the Change4Life programme) and the Public Health Responsibility Deal – a partnership with a range of organisations including food and drink companies – that it claims will lead to practical action more quickly and at less cost than through legislation.

In response to the Lancet report published today, health minister Anne Milton said today that the Government has no plans to impose a “fat tax”.

“We are working with food companies to reduce fat, sugar and salt and ensure healthier options are available,” she said. “We also want to see businesses use more consistent and informative front-of-pack nutrition labelling than has been achieved in the past.”

A recent report from the House of Lords warned the Government that “nudges” (subtle means of changing consumers’ behaviour without legislating) alone will not change the behaviour of the population, but that a “range of measures”, including regulation, will be required to cope with costly lifestyle issues such as obesity.

Research commissioned by insurer Bupa suggests that obesity-related conditions will cost employers £490m a year by 2025.