Dominic Lawson: Tasteless - and with a fat chance of success

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The Independent Online

"Britain is in the grip of an epidemic," declared the Health Secretary at the weekend. Does he mean the 'flu'? No. Does he mean the dreaded norovirus, about which we have read so much? Wrong again. Alan Johnson believes that the disease we are all "in the grip of" is fatness.

There are at least two things wrong with this as a proposition. First, you can't get obesity off another person – it isn't contagious. Second, unlike genuine epidemics, we have a choice about whether we wish to suffer from the condition, or not. This means that it is less, not more worrying.

New Labour, however, think that we are not worried enough. In fact, they think that we should be absolutely terrified. So Mr Johnson endorses the fatuous Foresight report, which last October declared that "by 2050, 60 per cent of men, 50 per cent of women and 25 per cent of children could be obese". Obese, that is, by the entirely arbitrary measurement know as the Body Mass Index – the same Index under which George Clooney is clinically obese, and Johnny Wilkinson, possibly the fittest man in Britain, is "overweight".

The Foresight report went on to claim that this "epidemic" would cost the NHS an "extra £45bn a year" by 2050 – or almost half the entire NHS budget. Since that report came out, it has been comprehensively demolished by BBC Radio 4's The Investigation, which proved that these extraordinary figures were created by the commission of basic statistical errors. "Shoddy" was about the most polite word that statisticians had to say about it, when invited to comment by the BBC.

Alan Johnson's article in The Sunday Times contained not the tiniest sign of acknowledging the methodological ineptitude at the heart of the Government-sponsored Foresight report. Instead, he uses it – as presumably was the purpose behind commissioning it in the first place –to propose a "cross-government strategy on obesity".

Mr Johnson's office then briefed the Monday papers with "action plans" specifically designed to appeal to the different readerships of various newspapers. Thus The Guardian was given the story that "Ministers will move this week to curb the spread of fast-food outlets" – that newspaper's readers were presumably thought to be antipathetic to such multinational companies as McDonald's and KFC.

Meanwhile The Daily Telegraph's readers were given the tale that "Ministers will pledge this week to offer children five hours of 'organised exercise' a week in order to tackle Britain's obesity crisis" – presumably on the basis that they believe that the nation's children could all do with a lot more fresh air, discipline and running up and down on the spot.

So the Secretary of State got the headlines he wanted in the newspapers he wanted. On the other hand, Telegraph readers will have a well-founded scepticism about yet another target for teachers who have had more than enough of such state-imposed directives on the way the school day is divided.

As for the eye-catching initiative to win support from readers of more left-wing newspapers, it ran into a withering comment from the Local Government Association, which observed that councils already have the power to limit the concentration of fast-food restaurants, and that: "No council has used this power because there is no evidence that it makes the slightest bit of difference to obesity."

This is the pure unadulterated truth, hard though it is for some people to grasp, especially if they are in the business of telling people what to do. The most recent significant study, in the medical journal Public Health, examined the weight gain of 6,918 children from 59 metropolitan areas around the US from the time these children advanced from "kindergarten through third grade". The study concluded that although areas where fruit and vegetables were cheapest saw lower rates of obesity, it found "no significant relationship between children's excess weight gain and the presence of many convenience stores and fast-food restaurants".

We can be sure that this study will not weigh on the Health Secretary's mind – even assuming that his civil servants had the temerity to bring it to his attention. Similarly, the Government ignored the evidence from Canada that restrictions on fast-food advertising on children's television had no measurable impact on children's obesity rates: Ofcom put the squeeze on British commercial television to ban such ads over here. The only observable result has been a dramatic reduction in the willingness of commercial television companies to put money into new programmes specifically made for young children.

It is not just that the "cures" for the obesity "epidemic" promoted by Alan Johnson will do little other than add yet another layer of bureaucratic interference to already over-burdened professions. The fundamental argument behind it – that we are all going to be dying younger because we are getting fatter – is spurious. The fact is that life expectancy has been growing despite the fact that we have been getting plumper – and perhaps because of it.

If there is a crisis in public health costs, it does not arise from lower life expectancy, as people supposedly drop dead from eating too many hamburgers; it comes from an almost entirely unforecast and dramatic rise in the number of very old people with no specific medical condition who require long-term care.

The notion that a nation with an expanding waistline is a nation in deep medical trouble has been comprehensively trashed by the most recent studies. Two months ago, The Journal of the American Medical Association published an analysis of decades of research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which concluded that being overweight – yes, overweight – " was associated with significantly decreased all-cause mortality overall". In other words, if Mr Johnson knows what's good for him, he ought to put on a few pounds.

It is undeniable that the "morbidly obese" are endangering their own health: but is there a single morbidly obese person who doesn't realise that, as he or she gasps with every step? Is there any purpose in spending hundreds of millions of pounds of the NHS budget in telling very fat people what they already know? Their problem is not ignorance, as the Health Secretary seems to think: it is lack of will-power, which is something that no Government initiative can bestow on them.

I'm sure Alan Johnson genuinely believes that he is acting in the public interest; but, when there are genuine "epidemics" that cause deaths in the tens of millions in less fortunate countries, his social conscience should also tell him that to describe the relatively puny problems of affluence with the same word is in the worst possible taste.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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