Is The War On Obesity Working?

Boris Johnson will formally revive the governments war on unhealthy foods in an attempt to tackle obesity levels in the UK. Attempts to raise awareness of the dangers of obesity have in the past had a very broad health message, but as winter and a potential second Covid-19 wave fast approaches it is clear that this is about educating people on the dangerous links between obesity and Covid-19. The decision comes as research shows that being overweight can drastically increase your chances of dying from Covid-19, something the Prime Minister himself recognised had played a factor in his own bout with the virus. But is the war on obesity the right way to go? Or is there better ways to deal with this issue?

This isn’t the first time we have seen calls for a crackdown on unhealthy food advertising and Britain’s growing obesity problem. In 2008, during a speech in Glasgow East, David Cameron blamed “moral neutrality” as the reason why the UK was failing to deal with obesity, going on to say that society had become “far too sensitive”  and unable to “make judgements about what is good and bad behaviour”.  In 2015, Cameron’s call to withhold roughly £100 a week of sickness benefit to those who didn’t address their obesity problems was deemed “draconian” by the then chairman of the British Medical Association GP committee.

Under Theresa May the childhood obesity strategy was watered down and a stark contrast to her more hard-line predecessor. Despite recommendations, restrictions on TV advertising of high calorie food and supermarket promotions were not initially included in her strategy. One thing she did inherit was George Osborne’s tax on sugary drinks, first announced in 2016. The move, which expected to earn the government about £500m a year, came in to fruition on the 6th of April 2018. By the time the policy had been implemented the expected revenue had decreased to roughly £275m as many well-known drinks brands had reduced the sugar levels in all their drinks.

Fast forward to 2020 and we’re not really hearing anything new.

Boris Johnson’s call to ban junk food adverts online and bar unhealthy food advertising before 9pm have simply been revived from May’s tenure. Other measures include banning chocolate and sweets at checkouts and displaying calories for both food and drinks on menus in restaurants and pubs aren’t exactly revolutionary. Although he is certainly continuing the party line against obesity, where he differs is that his motivations are clearly rooted in the risks posed by Covid-19 and should be welcomed.

But is it working?

So far the response has ranged from pretty extreme to fairly lukewarm and has at times felt a little tokenistic. Cameron’s threat to withhold benefits was driven by his hate for benefit scroungers more than anything and May simply inherited a policy which many companies managed to avoid.

Numbers would suggest that the previous approaches have been unsuccessful: obesity is rising and has been since the 1990’s.

With a global pandemic as their backdrop and the personal experience of the Prime Minister to draw upon, it does feel like the government has found some direction with their messaging.

Research has found that that the risk of death from Covid-19 increases by 40% when an individual has a BMI of between 35-40. Excess fat affects the respiratory system which can in turn affect the inflammatory and immune function, impacting the body’s response to infection and severe symptoms of Covid-19. Hammering home these facts may be a deciding factor in the fight against Covid-19.

Ultimately, with both the winter flu season and a predicted second Covid-19 wave looming, being healthy could save your life.

That being said I do think the government is still missing the larger point.

Although the broader message about obesity is positive and should be welcomed, it only really addresses the ‘what’, not the ‘why’. The majority of people are not driven to make unhealthy eating habits because they see a few junk food adverts while they watch TV. It is much more likely that they are driven by biological, genetic and social factors, rather than personal choice, and it would be refreshing for the discussion around obesity to be phrased in such a way.

I would go as far as to say that unhealthy eating and obesity is quite a powerful and damning reflection of the society we now live in: long working hours, poor mental health services, increased poverty and deprivation, and expensive junk food alternatives – yes, I mean real fresh food – are all reasons which hinder people from being as healthy as they can, and want, too be. Until the issue of obesity is dealt with at its root, rather than at the surface, it will continue to be a growing issue.

There is clearly a much larger social issue at play here which is unlikely to be solved any time soon, but for now the move can only be a welcome step if it in any way helps with the ongoing fight against Covid-19.

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