Yesterday in the Commons, Andrew Lansley set out the Conservative approach to Britain’s "obesity crisis" – a crisis that is projected to soon account for more premature deaths than smoking. Last weekend’s Observer presented a nightmare scenario of £45bn in social costs by 2050: "Soaring rates of diabetes, strokes and heart disease caused by more Britons becoming fatter will cost the NHS alone £6.5bn". These sorts of projections should always be treated with a pinch of lo-salt but, putting aside the hyperbole, most agree that there is a real problem.
Mr Lansley, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, said that Britain needs "a supply chain initiative that will reduce fats, sugar and salt progressively and substantially." "We must also promote good diet, he continued, "targeting certain junk foods".
Mr Lansley also called for:
- "A combined traffic light and Guideline Daily Amounts labelling scheme?"
- "A national research centre on obesity"
- "A nationwide programme to identify cardiovascular risk"
- "Ring-fenced public health budgets so that we cannot carry on seeing such budgets being raided to meet national health service deficits".
Mr Lansley attacked the Government for halving the number of public health professionals and for halving lottery funding for community sport "when half the population do no sport and take no active recreation".
It is not just UK Conservatives who are taking obesity seriously. One of the Republican candidates for the US Presidency has also been an interventionist on public health. This is what Mike Huckabee, Governor of Arkansas, said at the beginning of last year:
"I don’t want to be the sugar sheriff. I don’t want to be the grease police. That’s not my job. But when I look at our state budget, and I see that every year our Medicaid budget is increasing by 9 to 10 percent, and I look at state employees’ health plans and I see that those costs are escalating at double digits and twice the rate of inflation — as a fiscal manager, I have not only the right but frankly also the responsibility to see what can we do to improve this bottom-line cost."
It’s easy for libertarian Tories to say that it is no business of the state to try and influence what people eat but what is their solution to the obesity challenge? Obesity, family breakdown and drug addiction are some of the bigger drivers of the growth in the size of the state. Do we act against these drivers now or do we wait and pay later?