The nation's expanding waistline, and the increasing cost of obesity related illnesses, pops up every so often in the news: it's a problem that's not going away. Last week though, that increasing cost seemed somewhat more tangible, when we saw news reports of fleets of ambulances across the country being fitted with specialist equipment to cope with fatter patients. Brand new 'bariatric' ambulances are also coming into service, at a cost of £90,000 each.
One ambulance worker from the West Midlands said the patients they are treating and ferrying to hospitals today are, on average, five stones heavier than they were a decade ago. While this doesn't tally with the average weight gain of the population as a whole, it does points to the grave seriousness of this country's obesity epidemic. We are the fattest nation in Europe, and despite health advice about diet and exercise, we just keep getting bigger. It begs the question, can Andrew Lansley's "nudge" tactics, as he calls them, to slim the nation down possibly be enough?
Oldham council's had an idea. In response to the fact that one of four children there is obese (higher than the national average of one in five) it plans to levy a 'fat tax' on takeaways. Any restaurant wishing to open its doors and dish up unhealthy, fatty foods, will have to pay £1,000 which, the council says, will go towards special programmes promoting healthy eating to kids.
Aside from the argument that this council in particular should be providing these programmes already is the question: will it work? Even if (as is predicted by local business leaders) smaller firms can't wear the tax, the chip munchers will simply go round the corner to the takeaways that can. Alone, it won't be enough – and anyhow the obesity epidemic is about more than just takeaways.
Rather than take a leaf out of Denmark's book, and levy further tax on shop-bought junk foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt, Lansley's gentler approach is to create an environment where people are encouraged to make healthy choices. But do his ideas stack up against the heavier handed solution?
Granted, there would be massive issues with taxing junk food – for example, defining the criteria for what would be on the naughty list – and I know much of the country would be up in arms about it ('Nanny state! Don't tell us what to eat! I'm thin and exercise often, why should I have to pay more for a bag of frozen chips or the occasional takeaway?!'). There would also be the very complex issue of redressing the balance. Research from around the world shows that as food prices go up in a country, so does the average jeans size, as those on lower incomes start buying calorie-dense junk food that's filling and cheap. The BBC reported last week we have seen a 6 of men smoked; in 2007 just 22, Type 2 Diabetes by 70% and obesity will be costing us £32bn a year.
Whatever the government does, it needs to be gaining more ground because if the battle against obesity is not fought and won, whether slim, a little overweight or obese, we will all be funding the healthcare of those whose weight problems have made them ill. Let's see if Lansley's ideas start to show any signs of impact before we hear news of the next generation of mega ambulances in on order.