Obesity and childhood obesity is one of the most serious health challenges we face. Right now in the UK, almost a quarter of children are overweight or obese by the time they start primary school, and more than a third are by the time they leave, putting them at greater risk of obesity-related conditions like diabetes and cancer, heart disease and asthma. It is important to be clear that this issue is not about how our kids look. It is about how our children feel, and the possibilities that are open to them. It is about their health, the health of our nation and the health of our economy. We must avoid stigmatising obese British children.
There is a very real danger that significant numbers of today’s children will live shorter lives than their parents and spend more of their years in poor health. Looking ahead, the number of overweight and obese people is likely to increase. The Foresight report has predicted that by 2025, nearly half of men and over a third of women will be obese.
When Nye Bevan introduced the NHS, less than one in ten households had a television and less than a third owned a car – now one, if not two or three television sets are found in 98 per cent of all households and 19.5 million households own a car – 8.4 million have two or more. The way we live today is very different from even when I was growing up. In school, we had regular exercise. Eating was a totally different experience back then. Even when both parents worked outside of the home, most families in my area sat down at the table together as a family for a meal.
Fast forward to today and so many children cannot attend local schools or do not, so instead of walking to school, they ride in a car or they are in a bus. And in too many schools, school sports has been axed because of budget cuts pushed by this government. Indeed, fears about safety mean that those afternoons outside have been replaced by afternoons inside with TV, video games and the Internet. The children I meet in my constituency are keen to grab fast food or something from the corner shop. We have seen how kids in our communities regularly stop by these shops on their way to school buying themselves fizzy drinks and crisps for breakfast.
There is no doubt that this is a serious problem. It is one that is affecting every community across this country. Just like with so many other challenges we face, the most disadvantaged communities are being hit hardest by this issue. In many ways, childhood obesity has become a problem of poverty. Studies about the predictors of obesity in the UK have shown that the poorest are most likely to be obese. For example, one recent University of Glasgow study found that residents of an impoverished Glasgow neighbourhood were more than twice as likely to be obese compared with residents of an affluent neighbourhood only mile away. Indeed, a basket of healthy food would cost more in a poor part of east London, for example, than it would in somewhere like Fulham.
Richard Thaler’s Nudge showed how positive influence can work. Thaler’s iron rule is “no bans, no mandates [government compulsion]”. However, when Thaler, himself is pressed, he has said that he would have opposed a smoking ban and would have opposed the Clean Air Act – probably the piece of 20th century legislation that has saved more lives in Britain than any other. Prevention, in the first place, is the key. But this is not a licence to hector and lecture people on how they should spend their lives.
Yet, despite the warnings, the government is failing to put in place an adequate strategy. Big corporations are now in the driving seat of this government’s policies on public health. This Tory-led government is cutting back on some of the last Labour government’s schemes to encourage healthy living like Change4life. Key health groups have walked out on flagship policies like ‘responsibility deals’. David Cameron seems more concerned with working with big business than in improving the nation’s health.