“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.