Lord Leverhulme famously – and tiresomely – remarked that half of what he spent on advertising was wasted but he didn’t know which half.
The Health Education Authority has solved the conundrum by wasting both halves. Every year the Government spends 210m of taxpayers’ money telling those same taxpayers to get up off their backsides and exercise more, eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, forgo red meat, butter, full-fat milk, and sticky cakes, and treat alcohol as a threat and tobacco as a certain killer. And what does the public do? It waves two increasingly chubby fingers at its tormentors.
According to a leaked draft paper prepared by the Department of Health, in the five years since the launch of the Health of the Nation plan obesity has soared and teenage smoking nearly doubled. Faced with recalcitrance on such a scale, the Government is said to be contemplating a retreat. Instead of sticking to the earlier target of cutting the number of fat Britons by a third for women and a quarter for men, the draft paper proposes the more modest objective of holding the status quo.
That, too, is doomed to failure. Anyone wanting to wager that a year from now, and another 210m down the drain, Britain’s fat people will have doubled, trebled, quadrupled and wobbled will find the door closed at William Hill where there is a long-standing aversion to taking bets on certainties.
At some point in the past two or three years, the medical profession decided the population was too fat and getting fatter. This verdict succeeded, though did not replace, an earlier obsession with cholesterol, which had succeeded, though not replaced, a still earlier fixation with tobacco. In each case the pattern was the same. The researchers made a discovery, the doctors absorbed the findings, the findings became a scare, the lobbyists seized the baton and ran, and the Government shrieked and sprayed money in the air. Meanwhile, the population at large lived longer, fitter and more prosperous lives than any previous generation known to history.
Prosperity, of course, is the problem. Eating, drinking and lolling around doing not very much are among the key benefits that prosperity bestows. They certainly beat living on the breadline, which, as the doctors will tell you, is not good for health. But if poor people tend to be short lived and richer people tend to be fat and unhealthy, where lies the answer? The link between economics and health would suggest that a population should, for its own good, be rich enough to eat four egg-sized potatoes a day with three ounces of white meat followed by five pieces of fruit but poor enough to be denied chocolate, chips, and fizzy drinks. Fiscally, this is a difficult task but might be accomplished by increasing taxation substantially and spending the accrued revenues on health warnings. This Government, then, is moving in the right direction but with too much timidity. The Health Education Authority’s budget should be measured not in millions, but billions.
But prosperity, though a great evil, is not entirely to blame for the fat folk phenomenon. Technology, too, is a curse. Medical researchers now believe that labour-saving devices are depriving us of vital exercise. Remote-controlled televisions allow us to zap Noel Edmonds without rising from the cut moquette. Central locking allows us to shut all the car’s doors in one movement. The car itself allows us to travel miles and miles in a fraction of the time it would take to cover the journey in clogs. How much fitter women were in the days before vacuum cleaners and washing machines. How much slimmer and better toned when they walked from baker to butcher to grocer to fishmonger to ironmonger, queueing at each shop and carrying the load home, maybe for an uphill mile or two.
Trust the Scots to come up with the answer to the modern dilemma. Ever a resourceful and inventive nation – Alexander Fleming, Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird – people north of the border think laterally as a matter of course. How else do you explain bagpipes? Recognising that supermarket shopping robs us of much of the beneficial exercise enjoyed by an earlier generation, residents in the Glasgow suburb of Pollok have come up with a solution as simple as it is ingenious. They take the supermarket trolleys out of the store, along the street, and over bonny braes, often for miles. A spokesman for Tesco says up to 1,000 trolleys go missing every year from its Pollok store. Some are found dumped in a nearby river or abandoned on wasteland.
Others are used as rabbit hutches, go-karts, or wheelbarrows. One is said to have been converted into a makeshift trap for training greyhounds.
The feverish physical activity expended by Pollok folk when confronted by the simple challenge of a supermarket trolley is an example to us all. While effete Sassenachs trundle their shopping to waiting cars and speed thence to evenings of armchaired goggle-boxing, the rugged natives of Scotland toss supermarket trolleys into rivers, race the streets in home-made go-karts, shift barrowloads of heaven knows what, keep rabbits, train greyhounds, explore wasteland, and quietly work on the blueprint for the first unmanned Tesco trolley in space. The future is theirs.