Stephen Jardine: Obesity crisis requires nanny state be strict

Bulging waistlines are causing a £4.6 billion hit to the economy, says Stephen Jardine

Bulging waistlines are causing a £4.6 billion hit to the economy, says Stephen Jardine

Spare a thought for Scotland’s public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick. He was only appointed last week but virtually his first job is to sort out our national obesity crisis. With two-thirds of Scots adults now overweight and 29 per cent classed as obese, that is no easy task. Luckily he had some help.

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The Scottish Government’s national obesity strategy has been almost a year in the making with public consultation on the subject opened last October. The finished document, known as the Diet and Healthy Weight Delivery Plan, was unveiled last week and it pulls no punches. It promises a bold and radical approach to the problem of our bulging waistline.

With childhood obesity the ticking time bomb for the future, the Scottish Government is also considering monitoring the weight of children from birth to adolescence and using planning laws to control what kinds of food can be sold near schools to help kids grow up with healthy meal choices. None of this stuff is easy. In the past, moves to ban burger vans near school gates have led to legal challenges in the courts and the Food and Drink Federation has already warned the measures proposed in the new strategy will damage small businesses.

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However doing nothing is just not an option. This week marks the 70th anniversary of the NHS in Scotland. In 1948 malnutrition was the big issue affecting child health. Nowadays the opposite is true. A recent Irish study showed a teenage boy today is 65 per cent heavier than he would have been just after the Second World War. Children have switched from being too thin to being too fat with 29 per cent overweight and 14 per cent obese.

As they grow up and move through life, the cost starts to build. Treating weight-related problems like heart disease and type-2 diabetes costs the hard-pressed NHS up to £600m a year. Add in days lost to ill health and reduced productivity and you get an annual cost to the Scottish economy estimated at up to £4.6 billion. We can’t go on like this.

Some critics say the new Scottish Government strategy is too wide-ranging to be effective but the approach needs to be based to have any chance of success. The only real question must be, is it radical enough?

Weighing patients every time they visit the doctor would open up a conversation about diet but it also risks offending people. Reducing the frequency of bus stops would encourage us all to walk further but it would also inconvenience the elderly and less mobile. A balance needs to be stuck and the measures on the table have the best chance of making a difference without getting bogged down.

They will however now have to go through further consultation before they can be introduced. There is much to do. Schools will have to gear up to play a more pro-active role in providing improved education about diet and health. Losing weight is hard so it’s much better to prevent the next generation from piling on the pounds in the first place. The food industry will need to adapt, not just in terms of formulation but also in how it advertises its products.

We need to change, altering our diets, taking more exercise and giving our children good food choices. A sweet tooth is learned behaviour, not an excuse to eat cake for the rest of your life.

Some will say this is the nanny state gone mad but when the extraction of teeth rotted by excess sugar is one of the main reasons children are admitted to hospital, nanny needs to act.