Go on diet or lose your benefits. Is tackling obesity really that easy?

The Times recently reported Mr Cameron suggests obese people in receipt of benefits will lose them if they do not go on a diet.  Is this really the best way to tackle the issue of obesity?

That obesity is a world wide issue suggests to me threatening to take away someone’s benefits might be an over simplification of this issue and is actually an ideological tactic to attract voters.

Lets not get distracted from the primary issue here,  the role of an active state in society.  By narrowing the focus on obesity and healthy eating we risk reducing the debate to stigmatizing those who are obese and focus too much on individual responsibility. For once could the debate also include corporate responsibility.

Just look at the food labelling debacle, which has been dragging on for over two decades The coalition government announced in October 2012 that a consistent system of food labelling is set to be launched this year, however, it is not quite a done deal with food producers still holding back. Cadbury, amongst others, have spurned the ‘traffic light’ system suggesting it focuses too much on the negative ingredients in their food. Really!

But it is not just about food labelling, more importantly it is also about the food production process. For example research suggests high salt intake is associated with significantly increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, so to reduce risk just reduce salt in take, easy. However, the same research also suggests high levels of salt intake is related to food production processes, rather than individuals adding salt to their diet, and the biggest barrier to reducing significant salt intake for individuals is the historical reluctance of the food industry to reduce the levels of salt used in food production. The seriousness of this issue must not get lost in tabloid headlines about ‘obese’ people.

Health campaigners suggest clearer food labelling could save lives, and have been campaigning for 20 years on this issue against a food industry which has spent over 1 billion in Europe to resist the introduction of understandable food labelling. Why would any one resist implementing something that could save lives? Profit of course. How could successive governments in the UK stand by and allow this to continue for so long?

Any talk of government taking an interventionist approach is met with cries of ‘nanny state’ from the Tory right who use this as a pejorative term to describe excessive state action. Those who support free markets object to the use of state power in this way perceiving such an approach as restricting individual choice. However, real choice can only be effective if we have all the relevant information to make those choices, this is where a consistent and understandable food labelling system would support real choice for consumers.  Arguably Cameron is facilitating a discourse of individual solutions to what is essentially a structural issue.  The negative consequence of a system reliant on promoting individualism, and the privatisation of responsibility, is that it falls most heavily on those already occupying positions of structural disadvantage.

Governments role on this issue is ideological. Whilst for some intervention from government represents the worst excesses of the ‘nanny state’, to others it represents an ‘active state’ coordinating an approach to promote public health for its citizens, rather than protecting big industry from taking responsibility for its actions. Strategies that might be developed include easily understood food labelling, then the consumer can make an informed choice and if we choose to abandon food rich in fat and high in sugar producers can provide what we do want to eat. Even better remove excessive sugar and salt from food production, that would provide the greatest benefit to public health. We need intervention because we can not trust the food industry, the average consumer can not fight against such unethical practices on their own. A rise in the cost of food is an interesting argument presented by the food industry as an argument against healthier food production. Presumably the real cost of poor quality food should include the cost to the NHS in diet related illness, but of course the food companies do not pay for this, this is displaced onto the individual consumer via the taxes we pay to fund our health care system.

Regulating the food industry is about changing a business culture from one of making a profit, at any price, to one of honesty and accountability. The regulation of the food industry must not be overshadowed by obesity and the healthy eating debate because there are much bigger issues at stake here, not least the accountability of the food industry and the role government should have, if any, in regulating the food industry to protect the health of the nation.

All most of us want is honesty and transparency, and maybe even an ethical approach in business where our health is put before profit, is that too much to ask?

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