Leading article: Of fat – and ministerial feebleness


The London Olympics have shown human beings at the peak of their fitness and capabilities, and now the Paralympics are about to do the same.

 The sight of so many top-class sportspeople, however, should not obscure the less-flattering reality. Any high street will confirm what international statistics say: that, after the US, Britain is one of the least-fit nations in the developed world. Obesity, in particular, is inexorably on the rise.

Many factors may be to blame. In the developed world obesity tends to be a condition not of the rich, but of the poor. Income disparity in the UK is wide and fresh food can be more expensive than processed or fast food – or may seem so to those with no time or inclination to cook. In these circumstances, something more drastic than exhortation is needed to change behaviour.

This is, in fact, where government should come in – not least because much of the high cost of obesity will ultimately come out of the public purse. This Government, though, while recognising the problem, has been timid in the extreme about applying even the limited levers it has. Abolishing the post of obesity adviser sent a certain message, but as the erstwhile holder of that post, Professor Simon Capewell, tells The Independent today, that is the least of it. In what he calls a "dereliction of duty", he says the Government still thinks food companies can be persuaded to do the right thing, even as they successfully fend off regulation that would make a difference.

Now it might be that taxes on unhealthy food would only penalise those who are already worst off, but the subject should at least be aired. And bans on "supersize" drinks or on advertising to children have no downside – except for the food companies. The Government may fear being branded a nanny state. But diet is a subject on which nanny still knows best.