Terence Blacker: How to make obese people feel a bit better

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The Independent Online

Not so long ago we were warned that, as a nation, Britain was sitting on a fat bomb. Unless something was done about the annual inflation in obesity rates, the fat bomb would explode. There would be a terrible mess. And yet the fat have continued to grow fatter. In 2005, more than one in five British adults was obese. By 2010, it will be one in three for men, and marginally less for women. The statistics for children are appalling: a fifth of those in reception classes at the age of five are overweight, as are two-thirds of 11-year-olds.

There have been warnings, reports, and scandalised television programmes. The Government has introduced various, good-hearted but ineffective initiatives. All to no avail. This week Professor David Hunter, a public health official from Durham University, has been arguing, in a new book called The Health Debate, that the threat of obesity to our national survival is now greater than that of terrorism. "The Government was quick to move for things like ID cards or 42-day detention without trial – now it needs to show similar leadership in public health." Over four decades, there has been talk of a tougher, more direct approach to the problem, according to Professor Hunter, but no real action.

The problem, it is now clear, is more than one of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. The reason why the fat bomb is so resistant to gentle government measures is that its causes are not on the plate but in life. Those who lead us, who are in the public eye and are generally admired and followed – who lead satisfying lives, in other words – are rarely, if ever, obese. It is those who are further down the social scale who are likely to be overweight. Fatness is an expression of low-grade alienation, a lack of fulfilment and power.

The suggestion by Professor Hunter that it is get time to get tough with food manufacturers and retailers makes perfectly good sense. A brave government would ignore the squawks of protest and push through legislation requiring bigger warning labels, introducing an increase in taxation on unhealthy foods, perhaps even bringing in compulsory regulation of salt, fat and sugar levels.

The bigger, tougher question is how to treat the fatties themselves. The hard-line argument, which I once supported, is that being overweight should become a greater source of social shame. Films such as Ben Stiller's controversial new satire Tropical Thunder, said to mock the obese, are – so the argument goes – positively deploying embarrassment. The form of group pressure which was effectively applied to smokers should work with those who eat too much and who encourage their luckless children to do the same. Like smokers, the obese are behaving in a way which places a massive burden on the NHS, and therefore on the country as whole.

The problem with this bullying approach is that it will simply make the overweight feel even more disengaged and dispirited. Recognising the problem of negative labelling, the Department of Health recently and wisely announced that children assessed in a new weight measurement exercise would never be described as "obese" in reports to their parents. The word itself was a turn-off. Obesity is what happens to other people.

So the great obesity crisis needs sensitive handling, a concerted touchy-feely propaganda campaign, which focuses not on problem eating and couch potatoes, but on sport, health, feeling good. It is a tough challenge for any government but the next four years, during which we will be the Olympic nation, provides the perfect opportunity for action.

Stand up for writers...

When it comes to a knockdown, drag-out spat between a mighty American media group and a sweet little British author, the choice of who to support is not a difficult one. Mighty conglomerates are rarely in the right and, even when they are, they should be restrained and grown-up enough to resist putting the squeeze on one of their writers.

The case between Miramax and Allison Pearson may be slightly different. In 2003, the film company parted with $700,000 – not a bad advance – in return for the right to publish a novel called I Think I Love You, which Pearson planned to write. The delivery date was 2006. Since then there has not only been no sign of the novel but, according to Miramax, the author has ignored requests for information about it.

There could be several reasons for the hitch. An advance of that kind can paralyse the writing hand. The concept behind the novel, described as being about a girl's infatuation with David Cassidy, may have been one of those ideas which works better around a conference table in Hollywood than at the author's desk. The niggling sense that the joke about Cassidy had already been told once in Four Weddings and a Funeral cannot have helped.

The last time a British author and an American conglomerate went to court, Joan Collins triumphed over the might of Random House. It could be time for corporate revenge.

Compensation makes an ass of the law

The impressive rewards to be gained through the British legal system have been much in the news. Compensation of £706,000 for Colin Stagg, unjustly arrested and jailed for a year over the Rachel Nickell murder, caused outrage in parts of the press. "It's like I've won the Lottery" was Stagg's tactless comment.

One award, though has been nodded through without criticism. In 2003, a footballer called Ben Collett, 18, was playing his first game for Manchester United reserves when his leg was so badly broken by a tackle that, when he recovered, he was no longer the promising player he once was. His compensation for lack of earnings was, a court decided, worth £4.3m. Collett, now 23, is a very rich student at Leeds University.

Here, surely, is madness on a different scale to the occasional dodgy libel settlement. Sad as his case may be, Collett is a young, healthy man able to earn a living outside sport. If instead of playing football, he had been fighting for his country and was paralysed for life, his compensation would have been rather different: £285,000 and a small annual pension. If, rather than breaking his leg, he lost it all together as a soldier, the award would be £57,000. Unsurprisingly, Collett is now considering a career in law.

Smooth Phelps is no match for macho Mark

There was a time, surely, when Olympic stars still resembled human beings. Photographs of Michael Phelps, now an official icon of the Beijing games having won five gold medals, breaking five world records in the process, reveal him to be as smooth, slick and hairless as any computer-generated film superhero – Dolphinman, perhaps.

When the great Mark Spitz was splashing about in the Olympic pool all those years ago, he had the redeeming feature of a neat moustache of the type popularised by the gay group Village People. Those who prefer their gold medallists with a touch of personality about them will be hoping that Spitz holds on to his record of seven gold medals.

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