You are what you eat, so the saying goes.
But if this is to be believed, Britain must be becoming a nation of type 2 diabetics, given the increase in its consumption of sugars and fats. Sure enough, the statistics do indeed show a 40 per cent or so rise since only 2014 in children with type 2 diabetes, which is usually acquired through diet, rather than at birth. The figures, produced by the Local Government Association, are consonant with a wide range of other official data.
It is plain that we are not doing enough, even as we become increasingly aware of the problem. Like tobacco smoking half a century ago, society has accepted the health risks and half-accepted the need for action, but actually implemented very little. We now have regulation and taxation of sugary drinks, thanks to former chancellor George Osborne, one of his more abiding and worthwhile agencies. Fast-food advertising is banned during children’s television and there have been various initiatives from the government and devolved administrations. That, however, is about it, and it will not be enough to stem the spread of illnesses that threaten the quality of people’s lives. They also cost the NHS and taxpayers dear.
By far the easiest step would be to introduce a rational and consistent regime for taxation for sugary and fatty foods – neutral across doughnuts, burgers, chip butties, yoghurts or crisps purely according to the nutritional content.
No one in Britain ever enjoyed much popularity for advocating any tax on food: it is one of the most regressive fiscal measures a government can take. But we are not living in the era of the Corn Laws, and the taxation would be targeted on specific foodstuffs that endanger health – both prepared food bought in restaurants or fast food outlets, as well as sold in shops and online.
Today a schoolchild can walk into a cheap chicken shop at lunch time on virtually any high street and order themselves a chicken burger, a couple of wings and some chips for about £4. This astonishingly low price says much for the quality of the food being consumed – for fat and sugar are by far the cheapest ingredients in any food. They also satisfy our most primitive dietary cravings and offer instant gratification. Even at those prices, the economics of the industry evidently make sense.
But the social costs incurred on wider society – not least in healthcare in later life from diabetes, strokes and heart attacks – are not adequately reflected in a chicken shop meal.
What would a modest fast food tax achieve? It could be argued that the children, and indeed their parents, will still buy these cheap meals even if they cost a few pence more – and the nation is not yet ready for the kind of punitive duties levied on cigarettes. Even if this were the case, though, it would at least raise some funds for society to be able to pay for the consequences of such habits. More optimistically, a gradual escalation of the tax might nudge some towards marginally more healthy options.
Advertising, too, is an area where government could take a more determined approach. The current approach, which focuses on “children’s television”, is plainly out of date. Children watch “family” shows and soap operas just as much as they do programmes aimed at them, and they now consume TV and film in much more varied way. Advertising has evolved with it – but not the regulations currently in force. Advertising, though companies hate to admit it, does alter tastes and purchases, or else it would not be worth the global snack and fast food industry spending the billions on it that they do.
Schools too, could do more to promote better eating. At least some thought should be given to discouraging children to eat fast food and inculcating in them from an early age a respect for, and interest in, what they are putting into their bodies. Foods that are regarded as healthy or harmless, such as bread, can harbour surprisingly large quantities of salt, in particular.
If as is the case now, shops and manufacturers increasingly publish and label calorific values and measurements for salt, sugar and fat content, then children ought to at least be taught to understand what these readings mean, about how many calories or programmes of salt and sugar a day they require, and the consequences of overconsumption. Much of it will be ignored, but some might just stick.
The war on obesity, which has not yet even been declared, will be won through a series of small victories and guerrilla skirmishes, just as it was against tobacco. Within living memory it was perfectly normal to see people toiling in offices and factories with an ashtray by their side, sometimes overflowing. It is only about a decade since the smoking ban on pubs and restaurants came into force in the UK, and yet fuggy bars seem like a far distant memory. Now, even in winter, people often step outside their own homes if they feel the need to feed their nicotine addiction. Smoking rates have also collapsed.
The journey to a smoke-free environment is still not over. But the quest for an obesity-free nation – a practical longterm objective – has hardly begun.
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