Tuesday 28 July 2020 4:52 am

DEBATE: Is the government right to focus on obesity as its top public health issue?

Dr Keith Klintworth is managing director at VitalityHealth
and Annabel Denham
Annabel Denham is director of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs

Is the government right to focus on obesity as its top public health issue?

Dr Keith Klintworth, managing director at VitalityHealth, says YES.

The pandemic has made the case for action on obesity stronger than ever, with research showing that it is the second biggest risk factor for hospitalisation from Covid-19. 

Not only that, but obesity also puts people at greater risk of developing other serious conditions, ranging from type two diabetes to heart disease, and even cancer.

Now is the time to take serious action to tackle this growing health crisis. The government’s new strategy, which includes a ban on unhealthy food adverts and buy-one-get one free promotions, as well as more effective nutritional and calorie labelling, is a huge step in the right direction — but there is no quick solution. We need to encourage and incentivise people to make long-term healthy choices which will require a mindset shift.

We can all agree that prevention is far better than cure. With the right education and incentives in place, people can choose to be healthier both physically and mentally. It is up to us all to make this reality.

Read more: Boris Johnson’s calorie labelling plan is well-intentioned but economically inept

Annabel Denham, director of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs, says NO.

In the run-up to this crisis, Public Health England (PHE) was so fixated on paternalistic projects such as the £220m a year spent on doomed attempts to reduce obesity that it dropped the ball on its primary duty: to protect the public from infectious diseases.  

“Overweight and obesity” issues accounted for just 1.8 per cent of the NHS budget in 2016 and 3.4 per cent of hospital admissions. It is not clear from the evidence that obesity creates net externalities, once you factor in the savings relating to overweight and obese people who die prematurely. 

Our health secretary has told us: “If everyone who is overweight lost 5lbs, it could save the NHS over £100m over the next five years.” That would be less than 0.01 per cent of its budget.

A bigger problem for the NHS is surely the collateral damage of lockdown — 10 million on hospital waiting lists in England, two million missed operations, mental health issues sky-rocketing — that will cost thousands of lives. 

PHE should return to its core objective. A good starting point would be the thousands of MMR jabs missed because parents were too frightened to take their children to be inoculated.

Read more: Boris Johnson vows that obesity campaign will not be ‘bossy or nannying’

Main image credit: Getty

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