Kevin Hawkins

Here we go again with yet another ‘diet or die’ report, this time from 2020 Health, deploring Britain’s alleged status as “the fat man of Europe” and advocating a dose of nannyism to slim him down.

It claims to be forward-looking, yet its model appears to be wartime Britain, where moderation in our eating habits was not just “fashionable” but an absolute necessity for an island whose food supplies were being torpedoed by u-boats. Not so today. 

“Most of the report is either naïve or impractical interventionism”

Its core assertion, that “people are generally consuming too much of everything,” is little more than a truism. Alternatively, one might say that those who are overweight or obese are burning off too few calories in the form of exercise. A recent report from Public Health England, for example, claims that a “couch potato lifestyle accounts for one in six deaths, as many as smoking.” We are, apparently, 20% less active than we were 50 years ago, a proportion that will rise to 35% by 2030. But 2020 is much more focused on energy intake than output.

The report does make one or two sensible suggestions, such as tax breaks for larger companies that help small businesses give their employees access to gym and other exercise facilities. Most of it, however, is either naïve or impractical interventionism.

The proposal, for example, to subject all new government policies to an “obesity test” is a pipe dream. The likelihood is that most Whitehall departments will regard obesity as at best peripheral to their normal business and treat any such test as just another tick-box routine. Similarly, the idea that a cross-disciplinary taskforce involving every group with an interest in the production and consumption of food could come up with an agreed strategy seems equally remote. Too many positions have become entrenched and too many egos inflated to make this one run.

Which leads us to the ultimate nonsense of making the Responsibility Deal legally enforceable. The Deal is a classic example of enlightened self-interest, to be supported as a socially responsible initiative not transmuted into a behemoth of regulation. But, as Dryden wrote: “It is the talent of our English nation still to be plotting some new reformation.”

Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant