Leaders: Obesity warnings merit serious debate

More children in Scotland are starting school overweight or obese than ever before. Picture: Bill Henry

More children in Scotland are starting school overweight or obese than ever before. Picture: Bill Henry

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The warnings about obesity are not new. The knowledge of what obesity can mean in terms of serious long-term health issues, including diabetes, stroke and heart attacks, is widely known and not disputed. The cost of this both in terms of lost productivity and health care are again widely known and not disputed. Yet the problem keeps escalating. Today we learn that more children in Scotland are starting school overweight or obese than ever before.

However, what politicians do not seem clear about is how it is tackled. There have been many different attempts at passing laws aimed at helping the problem all around the world. More than 600 million people, or 13 per cent of the world’s adult population, are obese. The rate more than doubled between 1980 and 2014, according to the World Health Organisation. Currently in Puerto Rico the authorities are discussing a proposal to fine the parents of obese children.

In 2011, Denmark brought in a “fat tax” on foods containing more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat, but the inflated prices drove consumers over the border to Germany. The policy was dropped as were plans for a tax on sugar. Last week, David Cameron said that people who cannot work because they are obese or have alcohol or drug problems could have their sickness benefits cut if they refuse treatment. Charities claimed this approach would be useless because most obese people are desirous of change.

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The fundamental point at issue in tackling obesity seems to be identifying where responsibility lies, Some see it as simply bad personal lifestyle choices that the state should penalise, others as a complex mix of social, psychological and medical factors that need and merit help.

The National Health Service is very clear on the causes of obesity. It says it is caused by consuming more calories than you burn off through physical activity. The widespread availability of high-calorie foods, including those high in sugars and fats, and the current move towards more sedentary liftestyles are helping to make that more common. It says medical conditions are not a big factor. It also largely dismisses genetics and states that obesity has more to do with children learning behaviour from parents.

But just because there may be an element of personal choice does not mean it is something governments should “crack down on”. The most worrying statistic is that it affects proportionally more children from poor backgrounds. Children heading to primary school with a weight problem are not making a choice. What is needed is a way to ensure that they in turn do not send their children to school with the same problems. Effective education and greater physical activity must be priorities at every nursery school in Scotland, and that might just mean very young children begin to educate adults.

Change of view on speed cameras

Speed cameras, it has to be said, did not achieve universal approval when they first arrived on the scene. Given that they uphold the law, and that most right-thinking people are in favour of measures that uphold the law, that might have seemed a little perverse.

But the fact is they were seen as intrusive, and they were at the forefront of camera surveillance at a time when suspicions of state surveillance where high. Oh, and they increased the chances of you having to pay a speeding fine. That some councils and police forces were accused of seeing them as cash cows and a lucrative means to increase revenues came as no surprise.

Some of the criteria put in place to site cameras – ie close to accident “blackspots” in a bid to justify putting them out at all – simply resulted in cameras still placed at every possible junction.

Average speed cameras were seen as an even sneakier and more pervasive measure, one that couldn’t be beaten by alert driving or a good satnav system.

But now we are led to believe that the public are backing them. Transport minister Derek Mackay has said that the controversial scheme to put them on the A9 had changed public opinion.

There may be some reasons particular to the A9 that makes that the case here. The fact is it has for too long had a terribly high death rate and successive governments have battled over a prolonged period with schemes to make it safer.

But there is probably a greater societal change at play here that makes the minister right. Widespread CCTV on our streets, buses, banks etc has come a long way in proving its value as a security tool. Perhaps our views of all cameras have changed.

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