The Blog

A Larger Than Life Health Bill: Rethinking Britain's Approach To The Obesity Crisis

It is difficult to deny the current problem of obesity in the United Kingdom- a situation which displays only a bleaker forecast each year. At present, 1 in 10 children aged 3-4 are registered as obese, as are a fifth of 10-11 year olds in the United Kingdom. According to Public Health England, the continuation of current rates (barring an acceleration- something that is not implausible) will see three-quarters of all men in the U.K. overweight, and just over a third of the adult population obese. Though these statistics are enough to startle without contextualizing them, the fact that Britain has amongt the highest levels of obesity in Western Europe must prompt drastic, and prompt, policy alteration from the government should Britain wish to curtail its obesity rates.

The list of initiatives and changes that can be made by the government are plethoric, and successful policies from overseas can be experimented with. The most important features with which to promote good health can be subdivided into two categories: nutrition and exercise. As per the adage, 'you cannot out-run a bad diet'; the United Kingdom must focus on the central aspect than underpins peoples' weight issues - nutrition. The most recent comprehensive study of the economic consequences of obesity, undertaken in 2007, revealed a £2.4 billion per annum cost to the country. Sharply spiking obesity rates in the past decade will have inevitably created the collateral effect of increased spending on its treatment; Public Health England estimate the current indirect costs of obesity to be a startling £27 billion.

Then-chancellor George Osbourne's announcement of a tax on sugar in March this year is a promising sign in discouraging unhealthy diet choices. Indeed, countries across the world have witness much success after a tax on sugar and 'junk food' had been implemented; in 2011, Finland introduced a tax on all chocolate, sweets and ice cream. Since then, the proportion of five-year-olds who are overweight or obese has been almost halved. Reformative laws in Mexico, a country with one of the highest rates of obesity in the Americas, follow suit: the decision to raise taxes on sugary beverages prompted a clear decrease in the sales of them. The new law, however, fails to achieve its full potential, encompassing only fizzy-drinks and not being applicable to foods laced with sugar. Given the media attention attributed to sugar in the past decade and scientists' (now almost universal) blaming of sugar as one of the chief causes of obesity, a total tax on all products with a sugar content above a set threshold would aid the battle in combating Britain's current obesity crisis.

The current epidemic of obesity in U.K pervading primary and secondary schools not only sets worrying precedent for the future, but highlights a fundamental flaw in schools' abilities to i) provide consistently nutritional food ii) Appropriately educate children on the dangers of sugar. Spearheaded by renowned figures in the field of nutrition such as Jamie Oliver, the last 10 years have indeed witnessed an improvement in the worth of school through enhanced regulatory measures. Current rates of obese children in British schools (a third leave secondary schools overweight or obese), however, necessitates further action. Although there is a national, blanket program currently in place to tackle obesity in schools, ('The National Healthy Schools Programme') it proves insufficient in tackling the scale of the problem; a report found it that "within a two year time frame, the NHSP did not have a significant positive impact on pupil health-related outcomes in either primary or secondary schools." Schools must thus seek to implement healthy-living initiatives in their own curricula; calls have been made by senior ministers to enforce a program of between thirty and sixty minutes of compulsory exercise every day.

Centralizing the issue of obesity in national politics is also a step that would abet the current situation. At present, state funding for obesity prevention is relatively low. The vast majority of the £2.8 billion public health budget is paid towards mandatory public health services such as sexual health, and obesity prevention in adults receives just 2.6% of the public health budget. Increased devolved funding would allow local councils to implement initiatives such as increased (free) educative classes on nutrition and re-investment in leisure centres and open spaces- since 2010 over £75 million has had to be cut from England's parks and open spaces due to severe budget pressures. Efforts to combat the obesity epidemic in Wigan could be adopted nationwide; council-run programmes to aid slimming such as 'Lose Weight Feel Great' entail a specialist weight management service and free group sessions in local communities. That 17,000 people have taken up the service, and a combined total of over 72,000kg has been lost, will hopefully catalyze the creation - or enhanced comprehensiveness - of local efforts by councils in the country.

It is easy to, at arm's-length, list the various steps the government should take in combating rising obesity; planning and implementation is logistically difficult and would likely precipitate a short-term economic loss before the advantages of reduced obesity treatment would be seen. Patent, however, is the flawed nature of the present approach, evidenced by the sharp incline of obesity diagnoses. Amongst the multiplicity of steps that can be taken in battling the problem, the government should continue its bravery in increasing taxes on unhealthy food items, for they are the primary cause of rising obesity, and consider increasing devolved funding to councils to help better manage weight problems in local communities. Children and young people are the future of the United Kingdom, and the continuation of the current trends of obesity paints not only a bleak picture of their futures, but a morbid one of the country as a whole.

Thomas Smith