While politicians pull the only two levers they think they have, the issue of obesity is far more complex.
You may have seen the news over the weekend: One side proposed squeezing the benefits of those obese, while the other wanted to ban your Frosties! The debate that ensued reflected the problem of viewing an issue in a purely political spectrum. In the world of politics, there are two definitive levers that you have:
You can either do something that involves taxation or spending, or you can change the law. In this case, one side proposed squeezing the benefits system (thus helping deal with a wider fiscal issue of welfare spending) while the other proposed pulling the legislative lever, banning products with high sugar or fat in.
But it’s not an either/or
This illustrates why public policy is very complex. Take both the levers. Not all people who are obese are on benefits. Therefore the impact of reducing benefit payments will have an almost zero impact. Using the law on food products may have an impact on some, but what about those where obesity is not primarily caused by eating unhealthy foods? It could be a wider lifestyle issue.
Linnear politics and policy
We need to get away from the mindset that ‘if you do A, the result will be B’ which hits the headlines all too often. e.g. tighten up the borders and immigrants will go away, reduce benefits and more people will get jobs, cut spending and the private sector will pick up the slack. No. No. No.
It’s more complicated.
Let’s take the issue of obesity. The various factors involved fall within the remit of more than one government department. It’s not just a Department for Health issue. It covers the departments of Education, Culture, Media and Sport, and to some extent it touches on Business, Transport and Work & Pensions too. And what about local government?
Education: What were your experiences of PE at school? Were they enjoyable? Horrific? A bit of both? Do you miss it now? Did playing sport when young inspire you or put you off sport in adult life? What sort of culture and attitude towards sport and exercise do we want to embed in young people to take into their adult lives?
Culture, media and sport: The mistake often made in policy-land is that sport at elite performance (eg Olympics) standards and sport at a ‘sport for all’ level are confused as being one and the same thing. They are not. Yes, elite sports stars can be hugely influential for people – just look at the enquiries for non-traditional sports that followed the Olympics. The challenge here is how to get the two sides to complement each other. There may be some groups of people who are more easy to inspire than others. For example they may like a sport but not play it enough – but periodic sessions with well-known sports stars may bring them into it. Others who are yet to get to get off the sofa on the other hand may need a different approach.
Business & Work: This in part is a cost of living issue. Do I have the time and can I afford the fees? As budgets are squeezed ever tighter, it’s easy to see why some sporting activities might be dropped. Are there sports facilities within easy reach of where people live and work? Are they of decent quality and are they affordable?
Transport: Does your public transport network support the facilities that are there? For example bus stops outside swimming pools or sports centres. Are they community hubs? Is there easy parking? Are people often stuck in traffic jams? Are people being priced off public transport due to service cut backs?
Finally, there is the wider issue of how to encourage people into sports and exercise where they may not have a history of doing so, or where they have been scarred by experiences in the past. Why would someone who had been hurt in the past want to put themselves in a situation where they might be hurt again? Think how intimidating it is for someone obese going to the gym or to the swimming pool for the first time. During my late teens I had negative body image problems to the extent that I wouldn’t go to the gym or go swimming. Not until my early 20s (after being diagnosed with mental health issues) did I take to the pool on a regular basis – simply on the grounds that ‘life as usual’ could no longer continue and that I had to face my demons. No amount of benefit squeezing is going to force people with similar issues to take to a swimming pool.
Yet there’s also been an insight into how to tackle obesity from the likes of Jamie Oliver and from Strictly Come Dancing.
Jamie’s School Dinners from a few years back demonstrated what could be achieved (as well as what the problems and barriers that would be faced) when trying to educate families about healthy eating. Have you seen any similar things locally to you where charities, voluntary groups or the local council have adopted similar approaches to obesity and food poverty?
As far as Strictly was concerned, Lisa Riley was an inspiration, showing the nation something that I had already learnt from my dancing days. During those days, I danced with a number of people who, on first impressions you’d assume were overweight if not obese. Yet on the dancefloor were incredibly mobile, fast-moving and could turn on a sixpence. Their bodyshape hardly mattered. What did was their ability to follow a spin turn while cornered by other couples on the dance floor, or their ability to pull off a double-reverse spin in a quickstep. Lisa showed an activity to be fun, active, glamourous and achievable to people who might not have thought so. My take would be that getting people like Lisa and those of a similar figure who can dance to a reasonable standard on board for a properly-funded ‘get active’ campaign (esp where first couple of sessions are free) would have a more positive impact than say restricting benefits.
“Yeah, but when are you gonna ban Frosties?”
The wider issue here is the power of the food lobby. There’s no point even suggesting restrictions on what should and should not be in food unless you tackle the power of the food lobby in the first place – from the manufacturers to the supermarkets. Such is the power of the supermarkets that any campaign involving food is pretty much made or broken by them.
There are a whole host of other issues with big food – not just obesity. Monopoly power, impact on small independent stores, impact on small suppliers domestically (eg milk) and internationally (eg farmers in developing countries). Friends of the Earth have been campaigning on this for years. So on the food side of things, unless you tackle the power of the big corporates, trying to get something done about what is in ingredients is a non-starter.
What about takeaways?
When I visit some of my relatives in London, I lose count the number of fast food takeaways I pass – and those are just the branded ones. What are the public health impacts? Has anyone done any research with the regular customers of such outlets to ask them why they use them regularly? There’s a wider high streets issue here – where clones of fried chicken, loan sharks and betting shops are cropping up everywhere. But this is a local government issue. Given the cuts, do local government have the resources to tackle this issue? Do they have the legal powers to prevent certain types of shops from setting up? My guess is that they do not, despite things such as the Localism Act 2011, but I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise.
So…your point is?
If you want to make an impact on all things obesity, taking away social security payments or banning Frosties isn’t the best way to go about it. The issues are far more deep-rooted and complex. They involve more co-ordination at ministerial level, better engagement with wider society and require a better understanding of the needs and barriers that people face.
Any politician in any political party that is serious about dealing with obesity needs to put together a comprehensive plan that examines these things as well as the very important health issues that fall within the Department for Health’s remit.