A fat lot of good that will do: minister loses health argument by stereotyping the poor

 

Anna Soubry may have thought she was making an innocent observation about the nature of society when she declared that she could recognise the poor because they were fat.

“When I walk around my constituency you can almost tell somebody’s background by their weight. Obviously not everybody who is overweight comes from a deprived background but that is where the propensity lies,” she said

The public health minister’s remark in a speech to the Food and Drink Federation, the industry organisation whose members produce the building blocks of the obesity epidemic, triggered instant outrage, beginning with a torrent of protest.

“Defiantly tucking into my breakfast bun,” said one tweeter, “She’s a car crash of a minister,” added another. “Thinking of organising a whip round for [portly cabinet minister] Eric Pickles,” joked a third. Her Labour shadow, Diane Abbott commented: “Talk about blaming the victim.”

The 56-year-old Conservative MP for Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire, was speaking at a conference where she warned food manufacturers they must move faster to cut the amount of fat, sugar and salt in their products or face legislation to make them do so. It was “an abundance of bad food” that was responsible for the soaring rates of obesity, and it was up to the industry to do something about it.

Burger bars and fried chicken shops proliferate in poorer areas, their greasy smells enticing a ready clientele. But efforts to restrict their number, or improve their fare, have largely failed. Food firms have instead been invited to voluntarily introduce healthier formulations under the much derided “Responsibility Deal”. Progress has been slow. Today’s announcement of an 8-10 per cent cut in the sugar levels in Ribena and Lucozade soft drinks was scorned by campaigners as “unimpressive.”

Ms Soubry’s efforts to focus attention on the food industry were in vain as it was her remarks about the eating habits of the poor that seized the headlines.

Recalling her childhood in the 1960s, she said when she was at school, the deprived children were easily identifiable because they were “skinny runts”. Not any more. A third of children leaving primary school today were overweight or obese.

She placed the responsibility squarely on their parents, not the manufacturers of the products that made them fat whom she was addressing. Parents should ensure they had family meals instead of letting children “graze” or eat while watching television.

“What they don’t do is actually sit down and a share a meal round the table. There are houses where they don’t have dining tables. They will sit in front of the telly and eat,” she said.

The Department of Health confirmed that the poorest children are twice as likely to be obese as the rich. But the true picture is more complex. The Health Survey for England, published last month, shows that, among boys aged 2 to 15, obesity does indeed decline as families move up the income scale, from 25 per cent in the most deprived to 7 per cent in the second richest. But in the richest families at the top of the income scale, obesity rises again to 14 per cent.

Better-off children may have more pocket money to spend on snacks and more freedom to spend it, especially if they have two working parents, absent from home at the end of the school day.

Among girls, obesity is lowest in the richest families at 5 per cent. But although it rises as income declines, it peaks at 22 per cent in the middle income band before falling back amongst the second poorest families to 12 per cent and then rising again in the poorest to 19 per cent.

Among adults, obesity was lowest for both men and women in the richest two income bands, ranging from 20 to 22 per cent, and highest in the three poorest income levels, at 25-32 per cent.

Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, attacked Ms Soubry for “stigmatising” the poor. “It was the tone of what she said. It was arrogant and condescending. Yes it is true that the lower down the social scale you go the more likely people are to be obese.”

“But the poor are unable to buy good food. It may not cost more but it takes more time to get and to prepare. People who are less wealthy eat the food that is least healthy. It is the way the food is processed by an industry that puts in fat, and salt and sugar that degrades it.”

Ministers and officials have in the past avoided targeting particular social groups on obesity. The last national campaign to tackle the problem, launched in October 2011, was presented as a drive to “cut five billion calories a day” from the nation’s diet.

Fat children tend to grow into fat adults, and experts agree on the importance of nipping the problem in the bud. But parents often do not recognise their children are fat. Since 2008, parents have been told if their child is overweight when they are weighed and measured at school – whereas previously they had to ask for the results. But even now the word “obese” is banned for fear of stigmatising the child.

The driver of the obesity pandemic has been known for 40 years, scientists declared at a UN conference in 2011 – a food industry bent on maximising profits. But governments have turned a blind eye, fearing nanny state accusations, and insisted instead that it is a matter of individual responsibility. Now Anna Soubry has joined them.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Ashdown Group: PHP Developer - Buckinghamshire - £29,000

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior PHP Developer - Milton Keynes...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales & Marketing Assistant

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This UK based B2C and B2B multi...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003