Stephen Jardine: More than fat chance of beating obesity

Today she is a teacher but in 2001 Jo Moore was a high flying Government special adviser. Then she made a catastrophic, career-ending decision. In the hours after the World Trade Center terror attacks, Moore sent out a memo suggesting it might be a good day to bury a bad news story.

Scotland has been missing healthy eating targets for 15 years. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Scotland has been missing healthy eating targets for 15 years. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Moore lost her job but 15 years on, choosing the right moment to reveal controversial news remains a black art.

It may have been a coincidence that the UK Government unveiled it’s long-delayed obesity strategy when the news is dominated by Olympic success and the Prime Minister and Health Minister were out of the country. Then again, it was the perfect time to bury bad news.

And that is how many health campaigners described the strategy. Originally expected last December, it was put back to spring, thensummer.

Time seems to have taken its toll on the outcomes. Gone are curbs on TV advertising aimed at children and curtailing of supermarket promotions. Instead there is more focus on exercise.

With a third of children either overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, the Government had promised draconian measures to tackle the problem.

Instead critics claim food and drink industry lobbyists have succeeded in diluting the strategy to protect their interests. Getting more kids moving is positive, but if they are just burning unnecessary calories pushed their way via advertising and the supermarket checkout, the policy treats the symptoms, not the cause.

In January the new agency Food Standards Scotland (FSA) committed itself to urgent action to tackle obesity, recommending measures including legal changes to regulate food and drink promotions, if the food industry would not achieve effective change by voluntary means.

However, since issues such as advertising restrictions are reserved and Westminster failed to consult with Scotland on obesity plans, effective action up here is now more difficult. Where the Scottish Government can make a difference is in terms of political will.

Scotland has been missing healthy eating targets for 15 years so radical action is needed. In January, the FSA gave the industry a year to come up with plans to cut sugar consumption or face a sugar tax. But nothing has changed, so this week the agency launched a fresh strategy including new dietary guidelines, as well as plans to address the affordability and acceptability of a healthy diet.

Obesity costs NHS Scotland £4.5 billion a year, which could double by 2030. That needs to be halted now. Dietary advice and education have key roles to play. There is also a strong argument for deploying the kind of hardhitting advertising used in road safety and anti-smoking campaigns. And measures such as a sugar tax and a ban on junk food vans operating near schools send out a strong message.

By standing up to vested interests and doing the right thing, Scotland could become a world leader when it comes to fighting obesity.