Obesity is no longer a problem that just threatens the future of the US. A research paper published by Foresite of the Government Office for Science warns that 61.3% of adults and a third of children in the UK are now clinically overweight or obese.
Incidents of obesity have increased since 2001 with alarming speed. Figures published by the National Office of Statistics report that 11,736 children and adults were admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of obesity in 2011/12 – a ten fold increase in just ten years.
Stomach stapling, gastric bypass and sleeve gastroectomy have seen a year on year increase in the number of procedures recorded. 261 procedures were carried out in 2000/01, and according to the NHS this figure has risen to 6,723 in 20011/12. Gastric bands alone reportedly cost the UK health service £85 million a year.
Obesity is life limiting, life threatening and leads to premature death. Obese patients can suffer heart disease, strokes, obesity related cancers, hypertension, arthritis and asthma as well as serious physical injuries resulting from falls. According to the UK Government research, obesity can also cause feelings of low self worth, mental health problems and difficulties in gaining and sustaining employment.
Three major findings of the Foresite report are –
- Modern living ensures every generation is heavier than the last
- The obesity epidemic cannot be prevented by individual action alone
- Preventing obesity is a societal challenge, similar to climate change
Costs are high to health and to society. Using Department of Health data, the projected price tag to the NHS could double to £10bn a year by 2050. The wider cost to employers and the economy will be much greater – higher rates of obesity are associated with absence from work, early retirement and an increase in disability pensions.
In response to the Foresite report, the government has set out a target for a “downward trend in obese adults and a sustained downward trend in excess weight in children.” Tame rhetoric for a health crisis that is as pressing to health as climate change is to the environment.
The US and the UK are hit with an obesity epidemic which is only set to worsen. Marketing of “junk” – high fat and zero nutrient convenience foods, are a major factor in damaging public health. Yet, despite the role that the food industry plays in the health of future generations the guidelines for business set by the US and the UK are voluntary and self-regulatory.
The US drafted “Voluntary Guidelines for the Marketing of Food to Children” while the UK has similarly set out a tentative business ‘Pledge’ – companies volunteer to commit to a pledge to meet salt and fat targets and remove trans fats. Both are ‘opt in’ recommendations that businesses are free to adopt,or ignore. According to Small Business only 11% of UK companies have signed up for the scheme.
Critics claim that the Foresite report should push governments to react with more gumption. The British Heart Foundation said in response to the obesity report that if it was was setting off alarm bells, the government’s response was “met only by repeated pushes of the government’s snooze button.”
Professor Rob Moodie of the University of Melbourne recently researched multinationals, their impact on health and government policy and expressed similar disappointment. Commenting on the “nudge theory” and reliance on voluntary self-regulation, he told The Independent;
“You can’t expect self-regulation to work. It is like having the burglars install your locks. You think it might work and you are safe but you are not,” he said.
Foresight Report – Tackling Obesities – Future Choices (2007)
National Office of Statistics –
Food Pledges – UK Gov voluntary agreement for food companies
Image: RGB Freestock: nazreth (Michael Lorenzo)