We are in a global health crisis, and it grows worse by the year. By 2030 almost half the world’s population will be overweight or obese if current trends continue, the World Health Organization has warned. There are already 124 million obese children: a more than tenfold increase in four decades. More than a million of these live in the UK, which has the worst obesity rates in western Europe. Four in five will grow up to be obese adults; and the leader of the UK’s paediatric body warns that this will cost them 10 to 20 years of healthy life.
This is a social problem, both in cause and consequence. The chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, has warned that obesity could bankrupt the health service. Yet the government’s response has been as modest and inadequate as these figures are shocking. Medical experts describe its childhood obesity strategyas weak, embarrassing and even insulting. Though it inherited a tax on sugary drinks – which comes into force this year – from George Osborne, it rowed back from restrictions on price-cutting promotions and junk food marketing or advertising. Instead, the strategy relies heavily on measures such as school activity programmes.
Campaigners warned that would not be enough; now research proves they were right – even when such initiatives tackle both diet and exercise, and make efforts to reach out to families. Children in schools in the West Midlands were given a year of extra physical activity sessions, a healthy eating programme and cookery workshops with their parents. It failed to have any significant effect on children’s weight. The researchers’ conclusion was clear: much more ambitious action is needed.
The causes of the obesity epidemic are multiple and complex, as the landmark Foresight report produced over a decade ago underscored: we live in an obesogenic environment, and some more so than others (more than twice as many children in deprived areas are obese as in affluent areas). TVs and smartphones in bedrooms and reliance on cars play their part; so too do food deserts, where fruit and vegetables are expensive or inaccessible. It is cheaper to fill a hungry child with doughnuts than with apples.
But one factor leaps out: greed. The problem is not gluttony by a generation of Augustus Gloops but the avarice of the Willy Wonkas who press junk food on consumers, then profess surprise at the results. The tactics of big food are, as the global health organisation Vital Strategies points out in its report Fool Me Twice, strikingly similar to those of big tobacco over the years. But big food has the advantage that everyone needs to eat, while no one needs to smoke, and that a biscuit does not damage health as a cigarette does. Thus, these companies tell us that we should not restrict individual freedom; that it is up to people to show self-discipline; and that their products are fine as occasional indulgences. Never mind that they present family-size packs as if they are suitable for individuals (nor that highly processed foods, packed with salt and sugar, tend to be cheaper to produce, store and deliver – as well as being habit-forming).
Other countries have been far bolder in tackling the industry, instead of relying on voluntary action. In Latin America, governments have forced companies to remove cartoon characters from cereal boxes, imposed junk food taxes and ordered school tuck shops to replace high-salt and -sugar products with fruit and vegetables. Tougher rules reshape consumer perceptions and decisions. And in doing so, they can also push companies into changing products.
A ban on junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed is long overdue. It should be supplemented by a ban on promotions and price cuts for “sharing” bags of chocolates, as Action on Sugar urged last month. And the sugar tax on drinks could be extended to food products, with the revenue channelled into initiatives making fruit and vegetables more affordable and attractive to consumers. The government’s failure to force change means that the rest of us will pay the price – in ill health and higher taxes – as big food rakes in the profits.