Stephen Jardine: Time we digested extent of obesity crisis

Next week voters go the polls for the Scottish elections and for the first time they are being urged to factor Scotland's obesity crisis into the choices they make.

Picture: PA
Picture: PA

Obesity Action Scotland is challenging parliamentary candidates to sign up to five key measures as part of a campaign called “Scotland Can’t Stomach It Any Longer”. The aim is to ensure the next Scottish Parliament is firmly committed to reducing the damage being done by growing obesity levels.

Figures show 65 per cent of Scottish adults are overweight, including 28 per cent who are obese. In other words, two in every three people who can vote next week are heavier than they should be.

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Although the rise in numbers has slowed, the problem here is significantly worse than elsewhere, and Scotland is only second to Hungary on adult obesity levels.

While poor diet and lack of exercise are key factors, Obesity Action Scotland says the problem is too complex to expect it to be solved by individual behavioural changes. That’s where the politicians come in.

Established last summer to provide clinical leadership on our weight problem, Obesity Action Scotland believes a few actions could make a big difference. As well as supporting cuts in fat and sugar and actions to encourage healthy weight levels, they want politicians to look at what difference price and regulation could make to the Scottish diet as well as reinvesting revenue from the sugar tax into measures to discourage childhood obesity. They also believe the public sector should lead by example.

So should the nation’s weight be an election issue ? It has to be.

Three years ago the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges said obesity was “the greatest public health crisis facing the UK” and since then we’ve only become fatter.

Obese people cost the NHS twice as much as thin people. It is estimated 3 per cent of our economy is spent dealing with the consequences of eating too much.

Politicians alone cannot be expected to solve the problem. We can’t keep on guzzling chips and fizzy drinks and expect someone else to sort out the consequences. Obesity is about personal choices.

However, the Government can make a huge difference. Over half a million people are directly employed by the public sector in Scotland and this should be a crucible for best practice. Vending machines selling sweets, crisps and sugary drinks should be banned and staff taking part in lunchtime health and fitness classes should be rewarded with time off.

Healthy Eating Charters should form the backbone of all major public events and council sports venues should offer nutritional advice alongside activity opportunities.

And when all that is done, tax and legislation should be used in areas where change proves most difficult to deliver.

For manufacturers refusing to accept their responsibility, warning labels and targeted taxation is a reasonable means of driving change.

The obesity time bomb hasn’t featured in election debates so far but it should. Every party needs to prove it understands and takes seriously the threat obesity represents to the nation’s well-being.