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.

Sport
File photo of Lewis Hamilton celebrating becoming World Champion after victory in the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as he was made favourite to become the first motor racing winner of Sports Personality of the Year since Damon Hill
sportGareth Bale, Carl Froch and Kelly Gallagher also in the mix for award
News
Japan's Suntory Beverage & Food has bought GlaxoSmithKline's Lucozade and Ribena
news
News
A tongue-eating louse (not the one Mr Poli found)
newsParasitic louse appeared inside unfilleted sea bass
News
The illusionist believes hypnotism helped him to deal with the lack of control he felt growing up
people'It’s not that people react badly to it – they really don't care'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
peopleJack Monroe accuses David Cameron of 'misty-eyed rhetoric'
News
Tana Ramsay gave evidence in a legal action in which her husband, Gordon, is accusing her father, Christopher Hutcheson, of using a ghost writer machine to “forge” his signature
peopleTana Ramsay said alleged discovery was 'extremely distressing'
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Windsor and Aljaz Skorjanec rehearse their same-sex dance together on Strictly Come Dancing
TV
Money
Anyone over the age of 40 seeking a loan with a standard term of 25 years will be borrowing beyond a normal retirement age of 65, and is liable to find their options restricted
propertyAnd it's even worse if you're 40
Arts and Entertainment
Perhaps longest awaited is the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with Brazil’s Walter Salles directing and Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen as the Beat-era outsiders
books
Arts and Entertainment
theatreSinger to join cast of his Broadway show after The Last Ship flounders at the box office
Life and Style
fashion'To start singing with Pharrell is not that bad, no?'
News
news
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

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Argyll Scott International: Risk Assurance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Hi All, I'm currently recruiting for t...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible