The severity of this crisis means we need an overarching “obesity test”, now. Photo: Getty
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Why all new legislation should face an obesity test

Obesity is not a future theoretical threat, it is a present catastrophe.

David Cameron convened another COBRA meeting last week. Normally associated with terrorist threats and natural disasters, this time it was for a crisis in health. We’ve known about it for years, we’ve seen the catastrophic effects on individuals, we have had a plethora of advice on prevention and we have some frightening numbers of the cost to the economy. Were they discussing the greatest threat to the nation’s health and possibly economic security, ie obesity? No. Obesity, which has been blubbering for attention from politicians for a couple of decades, was elbowed aside by the far more fashionable ebola.

Obesity is not a future theoretical threat, it is a present catastrophe. In the past 20 years, the proportion of adults that are obese has risen from 13.2 per cent to 24.4 per cent among men and from 16.4 per cent to 25.1 per cent among women. Including being overweight, the numbers are far worse: 57.6 per cent to 66.6 per cent among men and from 48.6 per cent to 57.2 per cent among women. Most people have heard of the repercussions of being obese: diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, though less known tends to be the rising association with cancer. In 2007 the cost to the UK economy of overweight and obesity was estimated at £15.8bn per year, including £4.2bn in costs to the NHS. 2007 was also the year that the Labour government brought out its seminal Foresight Report on “Tackling Obesities” which set out to answer the question “How can we deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years?” The project assembled evidence and expertise from diverse academic disciplines as well as interested organisations within and beyond government.

Eight years on, one fifth of the way through the report’s timeline, and it’s safe to say the situation has not improved. We’re still getting fatter and we still have fat-sugar-responsibility-blame demonising headlines on a loop. The Foresight Report rightly asked for a system-wide approach and a portfolio of policies to be put in place. Politicians can point to things that have since been done, but they are self-evidently inadequate. The approach has remained to piecemeal, to voluntary, to weak, to uncoordinated and to blaming.

In “Careless eating costs lives” we have responded to the obesity crisis by putting together a portfolio of policies, acknowledging both that only a cross-cutting, robust approach will suffice and that there are more avenues to explore. Where previous activity has been limited, we are calling for extended application; where schemes have been half-baked, we are setting out a considered whole-sector approach; where good things have begun, we ask for them to be embedded in law as the new foundations of progress.  For instance, the coalition government’s much debated voluntary “Responsibility Deal” has actually seen 713 different organisations and manufacturers sign up to one or more “pledge” to improve labelling, content, nutrition or workplace health. They have shown it can be done, so why not now phase in this deal as mandatory for all manufacturers, just as the Disability Discrimination Act was phased in over a period of years, allowing a reasonable amount of time for companies to adjust? Likewise, the ban on advertising unhealthy foods on TV aimed at children, needs to be now extended across daytime TV, not just during the early-afternoon. Having calories detailed on some menus now needs to become the norm, from KFC to Starbucks to Pizza Hut.

Above all, the severity of this crisis – the drain on individuals, economies and the NHS – means we need an overarching “obesity test”. All government departments need to consider the impact of proposed policy on eating behaviours and public health, to ensure it does not compound the crisis. This is essential because the causes are so complex and multifaceted. Health, education, business, treasury, transport, trade, farming and local government all have their part to play, but if the “obesity” question is not being asked, the unintended consequences of policy could be a more obesogenic environment than we have already.

If a new policy or initiative makes it easier to supply fast food, harder to walk to the shops, more difficult for schools to serve balanced meals, cheaper to buy junk grub then it should be rejected. Those are obvious. But due consideration should also be given to prevention: mental illness and counselling services, early years support and cooking classes are all vital to ensuring problem symptoms are tackled before they turn into the signs of excessive weight gain. One friend remarked to me that everyone in the over-eaters anonymous groups that she had ever attended had reported a history of abuse.

No, obesity isn’t as captivating as ebola. And as ever, those with the least resources, the lowest resilience, and often the easiest to ignore are the hardest hit. But with a tidal wave of calories surrounding us, we can’t go on ignoring obesity – because it will sink all of us if we do.

Julia Manning is Chief Executive of 2020health

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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