It’s deadly, it’s on the rise, and we’re all at risk. I’m talking about a health crisis that’s posing a much greater threat to the UK than Ebola: obesity. That the government is scurrying with studied haste to address the former while continuing to sideline the latter is laughable now, but will have dire consequences for Britain’s long term future.
Over a quarter of the adult UK population are classed as obese, which as well as having a significant impact on personal health, places vast financial strain on the NHS and the economy as a whole. But it’s not a question of smugly telling people to eat less. Biological factors can influence obesity, but another far more important factor places the fight against obesity squarely in government’s ball court: socio-economic inequality.
Widely published studies display the direct link between people’s incomes and their waistlines. Furthermore, those who shrug off the suggestion that healthy food is more affordable now have an international Harvard led study to contend with, which shows that families seeking to shop more healthily pay around £360 more per person per year. Supermarkets know that customers from higher-income backgrounds are prepared to pay more for healthy food, and adjust their prices accordingly, which reinforces the vicious cycle of unhealthy diets among those who cannot afford raised prices.
Despite much political blustering, obesity has only been addressed by the government in piecemeal fashion, which is simply unacceptable. If it is society’s collective responsibility to account for inequality, then the government has a key role to play. Firstly, education about obesity’s effects ought to be part of the school curriculum, along with a greater impetus towards enjoyable physical exercise. Secondly, universal access to affordable healthy food ought to be made a government prerogative. But how to effect this? Legislation forcing suppliers to fully display the dietary contents of products and the subsidisation of healthy food production are unlikely to have much impact. Likewise, restricting the dietary options of different demographic groups in accordance with obesity risk can be immediately dismissed as both unworkable and unpleasantly authoritarian.
Unfortunately, lowering food prices is likewise not a viable solution. Within the European Union prices are already unrealistically low; supermarket competition pushes down prices while continuing to demand such a high percentage of profit that for smaller scale farmers it is often a struggle to sell for more than the cost of production. And thus the solution to these structural issues comes back to the crux of a familiar, yet unaddressed problem: making the minimum wage a living wage.
Emphasising the structural factors is not to deny the onus of individual responsibility in maintaining a healthy weight; while biological factors should not be disregarded, by blaming all our problems on genetics we risk disempowering those whose real inability to stop overeating stems from lack of psychological support. For many obese people, addiction, depression, and other psychological issues are the fundamental causes of overeating, and thus increased government funding for counselling and support groups would also have a positive impact.
Nobody is attempting to undermine the severity of Ebola. But government assistance should be going to the people who actually need it, and whereas obesity is now a factor in over ten per cent of deaths in the UK, the likelihood of an Ebola outbreak on British shores is negligible. Thus if the actions our government are taking are in order protect the health of people in Britain, then David Cameron is barking up entirely the wrong tree.