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Health News

Supermarkets care nothing for our health. That's our job

If the food industry won't police itself, we have to become more militant about what we eat

Back in 2011, when the Government's voluntary Responsibility Deal on alcohol abuse and obesity was in its infancy, it won a significant early victory, an example of what could be done if you worked by persuasion and collaboration instead of imposing the rigours of the nanny state on retailers: Asda agreed to stop running promotional deals on alcohol in the foyers of its supermarkets. "We made a decision that we would take the lead," a spokesperson for the company explained, "because we thought it was the right thing to do." The first domino had fallen.

Unfortunately, the right thing is not always the practical thing, and two years later, the rest of the dominoes were mysteriously still in place. Asda executives arranged a meeting with Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, to ask what he could do to bring their reluctant rivals on board. Mr Hunt, according to a minute of a June 2013 meeting obtained by the British Medical Journal, said he would bring the other supermarkets in for discussions as soon as possible. But it didn't work. With everyone else sitting on their hands, in September Asda announced that it had had enough of taking a lead. "We hoped the industry would follow suit," another spokesperson explained, "but sadly they didn't. Without more stringent measures from the Government we have had no choice but to reverse this decision."

You can't really blame Asda. This is the problem with voluntary codes: if no one volunteers, you don't really have much of a code. As the Responsibility Deal has been drained of credibility, the Government has flailed about trying to find examples of how effective it really is in making us all healthier: 50 per cent of companies, it triumphantly told us, had signed up to a pledge on the levels of saturated fats in foods. I suppose this is logistically impressive, but it does, of course, also mean that 50 per cent didn't sign up. It's a tricky one. If only there were some mechanism available to governments whereby they could compel higher than 50 per cent adherence to the measures that they believe to be essential to public health!

Why, you may wonder, is legislation such an untouchable concept in this arena? Perhaps it's out of a principled objection to the darned nanny state. Then again, you don't hear a lot of Conservatives calling for the smoking ban to be rolled back; you don't hear them advocating the liberalisation of the drug laws, even though doing so would plainly do far less harm to public health than alcohol or sugar do today. So perhaps there's another reason.

There was a hint of what it might be in the news this week: the report of a study, published by academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which found that the two health groups that remain as signatories to the Responsibility Deal are funded by the alcohol industry. The deal, to quote the chairman of the respected pressure group Action on Sugar, Professor Graham MacGregor, is "completely bonkers". He went on: "Making the food industry responsible for policing itself is a joke." And the only possible explanation of it can be that the industry's lobbyists have more power than any fair judge could think appropriate.

There is not, in any case, all that much public appetite for legislation. It makes us squeamish to think of any government telling us how much we ought to eat or drink – eating, in particular.

There was another piece of evidence of that last week: the reaction to the news that the parents of a 15-stone 11-year-old had been arrested on suspicion of neglect. The busybody state! Why can't it leave parenting to parents? But no one would make the same argument about parents of an 11-year-old who didn't clothe him properly, or who let him drive a motorbike.

One substantial objection to a legal approach is that it would impose a legislative framework on something that might be down to factors beyond the control of the consumer or the provider – that obesity is a product of our times, and not an occasion for blame. But there was a story last week that gave the lie to that, as well. In the Netherlands, a 25-stone man took legal action after he was sacked from his job as a childminder because his weight made it impossible for him to conduct his duties properly. He contends that his condition should be treated as a disability.

This seems absurd to me, but it is also the logical conclusion of a world in which we reject the idea that any sort of control should be placed on eating. The state says things are so totally fine that there is no reason for it to take a legal interest. The impulse to self-discipline is undermined by the increasing likelihood that your friends and family are also overweight. What, then, is responsible for morbid obesity but an unfortunate predisposition? "Our son's favourite snack is steamed broccoli," his father of the 15-stone 11-year-old said. "He's still big." Somehow, it didn't ring true.

I've never been skeletally thin, but in the years after university things took a considerable turn for the worse. I stopped doing much exercise but carried on going to the pub, and started a job that featured long hours, and, if I'm honest, I never really looked in the salad aisle when I went to the supermarket. The results were pretty calamitous. One doesn't realise quite how bad things have been until you lose the weight, and everyone starts telling you how great you look.

For me, as for just about everyone, the solution was to eat less and exercise more. But that process made me suddenly aware of the endless temptations put in front of your nose, the misinformation and the branding and the checkout treats. It was like finding out you need glasses, and putting them on for the first time, and suddenly realising how skewed your vision has been.

It is theoretically possible for everyone to find this out for themselves – but it is much easier for a childless journalist than a single mum working two minimum-wage jobs. The people who complain about the nanny state, I'll bet, are by and large people already well versed in the finer points of fats, sugars and the benefits of cardiovascular workout. A serious governmental effort to provide the same advantages to everyone is never going to win the wholehearted support of food manufacturers – and if it did, it would not be worth trying. The nudge has become such a cliché of policymaking, and in this instance it reeks of convenient complacency. Sometimes, what we all need is a kick up the arse.