This long read was put together by CWS Director, Matthew MacKinnon & CWS Chief Operations Officer, Edward Sumner:

There is clearly a problem with obesity in the UK and across the world, this problem has been growing decade upon decade and after various campaigns in recent years to tackle the problem, none seem to have worked, with two thirds of UK adults currently overweight or obese.

Covid-19 has brought weight and obesity to the fore once again, with the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Government intent on pushing through legislation that aims to reduce the number of overweight people in the UK.

Opponents of the proposed legislation believe that politicians are quick to continually look for short term solutions to long term problems and let’s be honest, obesity is a global pandemic, will a few taxes and advert bans really solve this disease?

Supporters believe the proposals to put further taxes on hard stretched people and businesses may seem to many to be the right approach to tackle an issue which has now become rooted in our very culture.

We all know there is a problem, but we now must ensure Government makes the right policies to ensure the solution.

WHAT IS BEING PROPOSED

Let’s look at the Government’s proposals and analyse each point:

  1. Banning adverts for high fat, salt or sugar products on TV and online before 9pm

Banning food adverts seems like a potentially nice idea if you want to stop people ordering takeaways late at night. This would undoubtably work in some cases and would reduce the number of people who make late night orders.

Many people who make late night orders may well be fit, healthy individuals who have seen an advert and fancy a treat, is it right companies are being denied the opportunity to advertise to this audience because some people can’t control their weight and eating habits?

This proposed legislation seems like an extremely weak method of tackling such a huge issue.

  • Calorie labelling in restaurants, cafés and takeaways

This is a policy which is long overdue, consumers deserve to be able to make informed decisions when spending their hard earnt money purchasing food in shops, supermarkets or restaurants.

Will this impact business at a time when they need immediate support and not more legislation, potentially, but the Government could give business adequate time to make sure they can adapt adequately.  

Why label products just by calories? Consumers also have the right to see where their food is from and how their animal was killed. The Government could include this in their legislation to ensure consumers are fully informed about their purchase.

  • Ending promotion of high fat, sugar or salt products in store and online.

To many this really does come across as the nanny-state in full swing. This does not tackle the issue, this will just lead to people spending more money at supermarkets on non-promoted products and lead to huge amounts of increased food waste. The reason many products are put on promotion or sale is because they are due to go out of date.

The Government could bring in legislation to ensure that healthier products receive just as much promotion as high fat, sugar or salt products. Supermarkets are always full of fatty promotions and we never see healthy options, this would be a positive step the Government could make to help the consumer make a healthy decision.

The BIGGER PICTURE

CULTURE:

In recent years a culture has developed within certain UK industries such as fashion and advertising where they have started to promote overweight and obese models, selling them as ‘curvy’ when in reality these people are usually extremely overweight and should not be advertised to the public. We need a complete culture change around what is perceived to be healthy and not healthy, sometimes this will mean unwanted conversations will have to occur.

In today’s society most people have a smart phone, there are a great many apps out there that allow you to monitor your calorie intake as well as the exercise that you have done, more should be done to promote these apps and make people aware that they can do it themselves.

Government and business should not shy away from such policies, as a nation we must start to create a culture of disapproval around obesity in order to reduce it.

One thing that baffles many about the approach of taxing food that is calorie dense is that you are punishing everyone in an attempt to restrict some people consuming more calories than they should.

Is it right that fit and healthy people who make certain lifestyle choices to ensure their own fitness and health is maintained should be financially punished because others in a free society have not made those choices?

Collective punishment has never been a policy that works in a free society and it should be opposed.

COSTS:

A change of taxation policy on cheaper, fattier foods or banning deals on such products could have a drastic affect on the poorest in society. This policy would not affect those with deep enough pockets, it would severely hit those who live off a small budget and they could have to switch to a reliance on food banks or worse, go hungry. As with many taxes, they are implemented with good intentions and like with most taxes they end up being punitive and punishing the worst off in society the most severely as often people on low-incomes spend a high % of their income on ‘unhealthy foods’.

Which foods the government go after? It’s very hard to know which foods deserve it, if at all. For example, cheese has high-fat content, yet many would not say this should be hidden away.  The reality is that many foods could contribute to obesity if consumed in sufficient quantities. It’s not just the food, there are many factors behind obesity. Obesity is caused by more factors than just over-consumption of high sugar and high fat foods. It includes issues such as the size of portions, levels of exercise and genetic factors.

Let’s not forget that the costs of obesity may be over-estimated. Obese people have lower life expectancy and so save government pension costs and health care costs in old age. We need a sensible debate with these things factored in, otherwise these new proposals could end up punishing people without solving the issue at hand.

EDUCATION:

The government message should be on one thing – education. We need to educate the nation on health, fitness and nutrition. Give them all the information to allow an informed decision to be made, we need to encourage a culture of personal responsibility.

Consumers make numerous decisions about food consumption every day, and the cost of the food is only one thing they consider among other many other reasons such as environmental, social and cultural factors. So the reason that a ready-made high fat processed meal for a family appears a better choice than buying everything fresh and cooking from scratch is a reason behind consumption decisions that just economics alone cannot explain.

A national health education campaign must be the way forward, punishing people and calling them a strain on our healthcare system won’t be enough or effective, the country needs educating on why they should make different decisions in the supermarket and how it will be beneficial to them in the long run. An overbearing state that does not educate but just makes the decisions for its people will never get the results it desires unless the people are on board and understand why they should consider taking different steps to getting their weight under control. This needs to be done from a young age, it’s easier to change habits in school and whilst the mind is developing instead of at 50, we need to create a generation of more informed people when it comes to food and keeping healthy. Thus why calories could be a small step in this education, as this would at least mean that people know what is being put inside their body, instead of eating in ignorance. 

AN HONEST CONVERSATION:

The Government need to be honest with people, they need to have a direct conversation with members of the public who fall into the obese category.

This is something no Government wishes to do, fearing losing votes, but it is a better option than collectively punishing a whole nation.

Obese people need to be told, in no uncertain terms, that they are putting their lives at risk and that there is a healthier way to live. Obesity is a complex issue, but people sometimes must be shocked into taking action and a Government driven campaign to call out obesity and make it something people disapprove of would be a good step.

TO CONCLUDE:

It isn’t right that we are all being collectively punished by Government policies. We are all being taxed and treated like children, having adverts hidden from us at certain hours of the day in-case we make what many politicians feel is the wrong choice.

Also, the way in which the Government is trying to sell these proposals is totally wrong, it is being sold as a way to protect the NHS, not as a way to live long, healthy and improved lives. This will doom this legislation to failure, we need to create a culture of healthiness = happiness. This will ensure that each generation passes healthy living down to their children.

There are some real changes that need to be made, too many to mention here. The Government need to look long and hard at our work-life balances in the UK and find a way to tackle obesity that way. Not look at short term taxes in an attempt to try and tackle a deep rooted problem.