Tell people to eat less? Yes, that’ll sort out obesity

The government's package has little chance of successfully tackling our greatest single public healt

"Worthless, patronising rubbish" was how TV chef Jamie Oliver described the government's new obesity strategy in Thursday's Guardian. Not a doctor, admittedly -- although the BMA also weighed in -- but someone who cares passionately about the subject and has taken considerable pains to try and reverse the bad eating habits of British schoolchildren. He's also got a point. And, ironically, at least part of the problem is traceable back to a Tory-driven policy from the early 80s.

How do I know this? I was there. Overnight, the move from a set menu to a cafeteria system in my Yorkshire comp changed many of my friends' diets from a fairly balanced diet to one of chips, pizza and doughnuts, because, unsurprisingly, that was what they liked. Consumer choice was important, wasn't it? Except that it wasn't. Choice is not an automatic, universal social good. And those who paid for this particular schoolboy error were mostly the kids from the rougher estates, who didn't eat well at home, either.

Fast-forward to today, and there's a sense of déjà vu. Obesity. It's just about people eating too much and not getting enough exercise, isn't it? I mean, why can't they just cut the calories and get off their fat backsides?

Surprisingly this, in a nutshell, is Andrew Lansley's breathtakingly subtle and innovative strategy to combat obesity. Eat less, move around more. Rather than getting people to understand healthy eating, we are back in the 1970s, cutting calories. In other words, if you eat a diet comprised of nothing but chips, as long as you eat few enough to stay within your calorie limits, you're healthy, as far as the government's concerned.

Lansley's comments have, unsurprisingly, found approving echoes in the right-leaning press: "fat people have only themselves to blame", runs one Telegraph comment piece. But obesity is simultaneously a public health and an educational problem, not just a medical condition. And, patently, if it were that simple we would have cracked it a long time ago.

Ilona Catherine, health correspondent for the Independent, writes: "Telling an obese person to consume less...is like telling an alcoholic to have one glass of wine rather than a bottle or two." Just read this fine, brave and personal piece by blogger Emma Burnell, if you really want to understand both the daily struggle and the politics that underlie obesity.

Now, I am not, I think, one to sign up to that twenty-first century, Oprah-style craze for converting every slight human condition into an illness. But I take exception to this.

Lansley's wrong-headedness derives from four errors: his dogma that what Labour has done is nanny-state and must be reversed; that a coercive, do-as-I-say approach will work in this area, for which there is little evidence; that central government edicts are undesirable per se and do not work (er, smoking ban, anyone?); and a fatal succumbing to food industry interests -- highlighted last year by former Downing Street adviser John McTernan in the Telegraph -- in proposing that self-regulation, instead of government control, is a large part of the answer. Yes, that worked well in the City, and the press, didn't it?

It is perhaps true that Labour's attempts have not solved the problem as quickly as anyone would have liked, although it is also difficult to prove how effectively one is turning around a long-term problem which often starts in childhood. But this package, according to most interested parties, is simplistic, unambitious and has precious little chance of successfully tackling our greatest single public health problem.

Worthless? Perhaps I wouldn't go that far. But not worth much.

Rob Marchant is a political commentator and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

 

Getty.
Show Hide image

The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.