Leading article: Dodging the issue on obesity


Another week, another Government-backed healthy-eating initiative. Just after Christmas, it was cut-price school meals to tempt children away from the chip shop. Now it is a celebrity- chef recipe mailshot and low-price deals on healthy ingredients at three big supermarkets.

The aim is a laudable one. Britain's soaring obesity levels are a dangerous problem, wrecking lives and costing the NHS upwards of £4bn every year. A quarter of all adults are already dangerously overweight, and, if nothing changes, the number is expected to double by 2050.

Clearly, there is much to be done. But although there is nothing wrong with either Ainsley Harriott's recipes or the efforts to bring down the prices of healthier foods, neither will do much to help beat Britain's bulge. Once again, the Government is tiptoeing around the edges of the problem when it should be tackling it head on.

Mass obesity is by no means easy to solve, not least because there are so many contributory factors, from individual psychology to modern lifestyles. But perhaps the most obvious – and arguably one of the easiest to address – is the ubiquity of poor-quality, highly fattening food.

It is impossible to walk down a British high street without passing any number of fast-food outlets. Our supermarkets are stuffed with cheap, over-processed foods packed with salt and fat, with checkout displays carefully designed to encourage impulse purchases of sweets. Meanwhile, junk food companies target adverts at children. And "healthy" branding can be added to packaging on the most tenuous of bases. Is it any wonder, then, that Britain has a weight problem?

Granted, extra regulation is a tricky area for the Government. Radical campaigners' calls for taxes on high-sugar or high-fat products,for example, inevitably suggest to some the march of the nanny state. But there are halfway measures that would make a real difference: such as the proposed mandatory traffic-light labelling so resisted by the food industry. The Health Secretary will need to be brave. But relying on a few, voluntary schemes and the charisma of Mr Harriott will simply not be enough.