It was once tradition to wait until January for the avalanche of stories that warned about the impact of the obesity crisis to be unleashed.
This year, however, we’re not even getting the chance to tuck into our mince pies and Christmas puds before the floodgates have opened. And this could set the tone for public health becoming a key debate in the run-up to the general election.
Today it was the turn of former health tsar Henry Dimbleby to wade into the debate, with a speech to the Royal Society later this afternoon warning that Britain will become a “sick and impoverished nation” unless it changes the commercial culture of its relationship with the food industry.
Dimbleby, who famously walked out of his role within government in protest of the lack of action from ministers on obesity, will cite a report by the Tony Blair Institute that claims obesity could be costing the country £100bn a year within the next 15 years unless the government tackles the NHS time bomb caused by the impact of our relationship with junk food.
“If politicians summon up the courage to act, as I hope they will, we might look back at this period and say – “wow, those were the days when we ate that stuff. That was weird.” Dimbleby is expected to say.
But given the current state of political affairs at the top of the Westminster tree, it looks as if Dimbleby and co might be expecting a Christmas miracle.
Investigation by the Obesity Health Alliance
Far from stepping up to the challenge of obesity, government ministers have spent the past few years desperately rowing back with a series of u-turns on policies such as the proposed ban on multibuy deals and the clampdown on junk food advertising on TV and online.
Even where action has been taken, success has been achieved despite, rather than because of, the leadership shown on public health policy.
On Friday, The Grocer exclusively revealed an investigation by the Obesity Health Alliance that revealed the partial clampdown on HFSS promotions, pretty much the government’s sole action in this area in recent years, was being “blatantly disregarded” by some supermarket stores.
The story here, it turns out, was not so much the industry trying to get around the rules, with the alliance recognising that the vast majority of stores have been compliant and even heaping praise on supermarket bosses for showing leadership on the issue.
The bigger problem is the pathetic level of enforcement in place to ensure those that break the rules, either deliberately or because their staff are unclear on what they are supposed to be doing, are held to account.
The Grocer revealed in May the government was providing less than £35k a year to Trading Standards in England – less than £250 per local authority – to enforce the rules.
Given the apocalyptic economic forecast for local authorities and the recent warning by the Food Standards Agency that staff shortages on the frontline are already a “critical” risk to food safety and the enforcement of food laws, it’s hardly surprising the Trading Standards officers OHA investigators spoke to were brutal about the lack of priority being given to HFSS rules.
Professors in ivory towers
“With current staffing resource this legislation is not currently a priority for our service,” says one Trading Standards officer.
“The problem is a lack of officers in Trading Standards and EH services,” adds another. “There are competing demands, many of which are higher priority. Funding would not assist as there would be no increase in officers available and we are unable to recruit suitably qualified officers.”
Such a situation shows the extent to which the professors in ivory towers who call for junk food to be treated in the same way as tobacco are simply living in cloud cuckoo land.
Not only does the political will not exist, but the enforcement capability is spectacularly failing to cope with the rules that are in place now. It’s hard to imagine things being any different under a draconian new regime.
Many health campaigners would like the industry, which they see as relentlessly pushing a diet of highly processed foods, to have nothing more to do with the future of setting the obesity agenda. But this is wishful thinking.
Without the industry’s support, and its innovation in healthier products and funding, the war on obesity will never be won.