Events surrounding the publication of the Parliamentary Health Select Committee report on obesity were truly hilarious – and I don’t just mean its chairman David Hinchliffe’s po-faced complaint on Radio 4’s Today programme that the BBC had broken the embargo (like select committees never leak!). I think everybody’s favourite moment came in the same programme when Margaret Thatcher’s former henchman Norman Tebbit referred to the “Government’s propensity to promote buggery at every turn”. Now we know what his old boss meant when she said “the lady’s not for turning”.
Shocking also was the revelation that “ministers have spent ten years failing to achieve a walking strategy”. I know that the members’ bars in the House of Commons are heavily subsidised, but one would expect them to exercise a little restraint. These people are obviously getting legless.
Among all this slapstick stuff, one of the committee’s better little jokes got lost. This was the suggestion that foods should carry “traffic lights” – little signals in red, amber and green that would indicate the relative healthiness of what we consume. The imagery is disturbing. Might we see the emergence of dietary “amber gamblers”? “The food police nicked me for sneaking through a lean piece of sirloin just before it turned red – they got the number of my plate on camera.” But there are real absurdities that you couldn’t make up – the Food & Drink Federation makes the point that raspberries would qualify for a red light because of their sugar content, while a high-fat avocado is probably unquantifiable. And what do you put on pasta, for goodness sake (literally)?
The one sensible finding to emerge from this report is that the committee doesn’t just blame the food industry – it blames everyone for making us fat. Government, the National Health Service, schools and parents all take a clobbering in some capacity for the 400 per cent increase in obesity over the past 25 years. The report doesn’t specifically blame the Prodigal Son’s father for the fatted calf (red light and double-yellow lines, probably), but they may be in an appendix somewhere.
The promiscuity of the committee’s blame is very healthy. In this sense, the report should have a green light on the cover. If everybody has a responsibility for obesity, then the message is that society is to blame. And this is bad news for the Government, which takes its aspirations to social manipulation very seriously – if fat is a political issue, then ministers can’t really continue to let food companies take the rap for the increasing amounts of it.
Another report recently demonstrated that there is a North-South divide in obesity – fat people are predominantly from Northern areas of low economic status, while the lean-mean fighting machines are to be found in the Home Counties. The higher socio-economic groups with the money stay thinner on healthier diets than the dispossessed on sink estates – which incidentally supports the view that those who visit health farms need them least.
The Government doesn’t want this issue aired, because it’s hardly compatible with its social-inclusion policies. So it’s far better in political terms that fast-food, confectionery and fizzy drinks manufacturers are blamed for forcing calories down the nation’s throats. The same goes for the health service and education – it’s politically preferable that food retailers are in the frame than failings in public services. This must be particularly the case when it’s estimated that the weight issue is costing the UK some &£7.4bn a year.
This seems to be a point that opposition parties are missing. The otherwise shrewd (not to mention suave and slim) Boris Johnson, shadow arts minister and Spectator editor, has gone so far as claiming the libertarian, personal-responsibility territory, but then spoils it with a knee-jerk attack on the Nanny State, saying that “the more the State tries to take responsibility for the problem, the less soluble the problem will become”. The problem is precisely the opposite of this – the Government doesn’t take responsibility, precisely because it prefers industry to take the blame.
This is apparent when Health Secretary John Reid claims that “these issues are not just a matter for Government – they involve individuals and the choices they make, as well as the food and leisure industry.” One feels like telling him “it’s the economy, stupid”, but he knows that already – he just can’t say it.
Where he is right is that there’s an opportunity for Government and industry to work together in the foods industries towards delivering systems of informed choice to the population. Sensible food labelling would be a start – providing useful information, rather than naff little traffic lights. And it would be a start that could be made quite easily if there was some collaborative will.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon