While the rest of us go about our daily business of eating, drinking and being as merry as circumstances permit, the most astonishing battle is being waged behind the mullions and porticoes of Whitehall.
There is talk of riots, total uproar and outrageous behaviour as officials at the Department of Health confront their adversaries from the food and drink industry. Ministers caught in the crossfire stand accused of suppressing a report with potentially far-reaching consequences.
At the heart of the conflict is the remarkable, and almost certainly bogus, statistic first mentioned in this column some months ago that suggests Britain is being engulfed by a tide of human fat. According to one version, the number of obese people has doubled since 1980. Some health officials prefer the more cataclysmic figure that points to a doubling of the cases of obesity in the past five years.
Both claims are acceptable to the BBC news because either of them validates the use of its extensive footage of fat people rolling ponderously down streets or standing still on crowded beaches. The latter tends to enjoy greater favour since it permits the camera to pan across substantial areas of naked fat in thrall to the law of gravity, leaving the viewer in no doubt that the subject under discussion is roly-poly people. It’s called communications, and you can take a degree in it.
Those of us who have made a study of sanusphobia, or the art of health scaremongering, know that, as night follows day, one alarming statistic is the precursor to many others, each more alarming than its predecessor.
The bombshell in the report the Government allegedly wants to suppress is the claim that by the year 2005 a quarter of British women and 18 per cent of men will qualify to have their pictures taken by the BBC’s obesity camera person.
The implications, say the sanusphobics, are terrifying. All about us fat people will be dropping like overweight flies, the victims of high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, cancer of the colon, rectum and prostate and, in women, of the breast, uterus and cervix.
As in the days of the great plague, it will be a daily occurrence to step over the bodies of the fallen, but in this epidemic you will have to step higher.
If I were fat, I would be worried. Not by the threat of cancer of the rectum, but by the prospect of being persecuted, victimised and hounded. For there are disturbing echoes here of the war against tobacco.
That also began with alarming statistics, progressed with a steady incrementation of diseases attributable to smoking and culminated in the position we have today where every known ailment known to man can be attributed to tobacco.
As with smokers, so to with fat people. It will be argued on their behalf that by choosing to eat, drink and laze as they wish they are exercising a fundamental freedom. This will cut no ice with the sanusphobics, for whom freedom of choice is as much an evil as fat itself. They will argue that, far from merely damaging themselves, obese people are inconsiderate to their dependants, a burden on the welfare state and the cause of untold hours of lost work each year.
In consuming more than their fair share of the earth’s resources, some will says that the obese are a threat to the environment and ipso facto to the health and well-being of those around them.
We know what will happen next.
Signs will go up in shops and offices across the country reading: “Thank you for not being fat”. There will be calls for fat people to be banned from public places; British Tail will outlaw obesity in trains and stations; local authorities will refuse to employ the subcataneously challenged and offer counselling to those who are laid off; ads for foods containing more than 30 per cent fat will be prohibited on television; posters, press ads and packaging will carry the Government health warning
“Fat can cause cancer of the uterus” – just what you want to read as you unwrap a bar of chocolate.
To its credit, the food and drinks industry is putting up a doughty fight, hence the cries of “foul” by department officials. One senior figure is quoted as saying: “The Department of Health is under instruction to block anything that would cause a riot in the food industry. Food manufacturers have already gone berserk over this.”
They fear that food manufacturers would rampage down Whitehall’s famous corridors of power, hurling cans of baked beans and letting off salvos of Monster Munch while white-faced officials cowered behind filing cabinets, was prompted by talk of setting a limit of 30 per cent fat in a weekly diet.
Any move in that direction, says one Whitehall source, would have caused “total uproar”. He accused the food industry of “outrageous behaviour”.
Well, good for the food industry. It knows that behind this latest assault on freedom are the same constipated meddlers who last year sought to prescribe a diet of three egg-sized potatoes a day and three-quarters of a small chocolate bar a week. They must be stopped.