Global governments 'must get tough on obesity'

Body fat being measured using callipers. Obesity is a problem in low, middle and high income countries

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Tougher action - including taxing junk food - is needed by all governments if the obesity crisis is going to be tackled, experts say.

The international group of researchers, who have published a series of articles in The Lancet, said no country had yet got to grips with the problem.

They said changes in society meant it was getting harder for people to live healthy lives.

And they warned without state action, health systems could become swamped.

Obesity-related problems, such as diabetes, were now accounting for between 2% and 6% of health care costs in most countries.

Rising spending

But as one of the articles showed, this is likely to get worse if current trends continue.

Researchers made projections for the US and the UK - two of the developed countries with the worst rates of obesity.

They predicted obesity rates would rise from a quarter in the UK to about 40% by 2030.

Such a scenario would cost the NHS an extra £2bn a year - the equivalent of 2% of health spending.

The rise in costs would be even greater in the US, where obesity rates would rise from one in three to about one in two.

The researchers accepted that the whole of society - from the individual to industry - had a role to play in tackling the problem.

But they said governments needed to take a lead by using legislation and direct intervention to create a better environment.

They said many measures - including taxes on unhealthy food, restrictions on junk food advertising, traffic light labelling and school-based education programmes - would save money as well as benefit health.


Category Saves money Minor cost Higher cost

SOURCE: The Lancet


  • Tax junk food
  • Limit junk food ads
  • Traffic light labelling
  • Cost benefit category


  • Discourage kids from TV
  • Exercise and healthy eating at school
  • Work with obese children
  • Help families with overweight children
  • School walking trains


  • Surgery for obese teenagers and adults
  • Weight loss drugs

Others, such as providing obesity surgery and health programmes aimed at families with overweight children, would come with a minor cost although should still be looked at.

Oxford University expert Professor Klim McPherson, who was one of the lead researchers, said: "It is about changing the environment in which people live so they can make healthier choices."

Professor Klim McPherson from Oxford University: 'Obesity as serious as smoking'

But he said too many countries shied away from taking the right action and urged a forthcoming UN summit on health in September to "show leadership" by putting pressure on governments to act.

In particular, he criticised the government in England, which has been focusing on voluntary agreements with industry rather than legislation.

He said ministers were "enfeebled by their ideology" and too worried about accusations of the nanny state.

"They have this idea that government action in this sphere would not be a good idea," he added.

Professor Boyd Swinburn, who is based in Australia and works for the World Health Organization, agreed governments had been too slow to act on the "obesity crisis".

"There is more willingness to invest in drugs and surgery than dealing with the underlying causes."

He also compared the tactics of the food industry - in terms of getting people addicted to their products and in blocking attempts to discourage consumption - to those of tobacco firms in previous decades.

Start Quote

Of course we have to work with industry, but there is a feeling that the emphasis of this government has turned too far away from legislation”

End Quote Dr Frank Atherton Association of Directors of Public Health

Dr Frank Atherton, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, also said he was in favour of the interventions being suggested: "Of course we have to work with industry, but there is a feeling that the emphasis of this government has turned too far away from legislation."

However, Terry Jones, of the Food and Drink Federation, said the industry had been taking positive steps.

"The Lancet fails to recognise the lengths to which the UK food and drink industry has gone to help improve the health of the nation, particularly in relation to rising obesity levels," said Mr Jones.

Public health minister Anne Milton said the government believed the best way to achieve results was through a "collective voluntary effort".

She said this was achieving results, citing the pledge by industry to put calorie information on menus.

Public health minister Anne Milton: "We're too fat and we need to do something about it"

"We have no current plans to impose a 'fat tax', but we are working with food companies to reduce fat, sugar and salt and ensure healthier options are available.

"We also want to see businesses use more consistent and informative front-of-pack nutrition labelling than has been achieved in the past," she added.

"We recognise the significant threat that obesity poses to society and have taken a proactive part in improving health."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 626.

    Total Mass Retain
    Total Mass Retain
    ["The Lancet" ... is about as useful as listening to a loudmouth arguing in the pub". I didn't realise the loudmouth in the pub was peer reviewed]

    Pay attention. The issue is the BBC cites in such a sloppy format that it does not encourage readers to go to the source. The BBC is the loudmouth in the pub and the BBC isn't even beer reviewed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 625.

    I have recently lost just over 5st following a healthier diet. However, when i go shopping all the nasty processed foods are cheaper making it more appealing to the masses. While fruit and veg plus the low fat foods are much higher. To cut the obesity this needs to be addressed and also people need to be re-educated into a healthier way of thinking. Higher taxes on junk food is one way to go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 624.

    The free NHS creates moral hazard. People do what they like (smoke, drink too much, take drugs, overeat, under-exercise etc) knowing that the other taxpayers will pick up the bill for their folly. If everyone had to pay for healthcare, via insurance, people would be more careful with their bodies - and then the feckless will have to pay for themselves, rather than burdening everyone else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 623.

    @Welsh Ben, in Scotland I find fruit and veg very reasonable, much more than many junk products, the zero VAT on fresh fruit and veg works well. But agree more could be done and they should be heavily taxing junk food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 622.

    The local secondhand shop is full of Nintendo Wii Fit boards, because people just do NOT stick to exercise plans. Our small town holds weekly Weight Watchers meetings, and all those attending park right outside [as close to the hall as they possibly can]. This is despite there being a car park only a couple of hundred yards away, they simply don't get it do they! Exercise is essential too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 621.

    Some top tips for solving the obesity endemic:

    1/ Quadruple tax on food.
    2/ Food only sold to people on foot/bike.
    3/ Timelock mechanisms for fridges (open 5 mins/day).
    4/ Takeaway delivery drivers to have loud hailer proclaiming who's ordered the indian with supersize keema naan as they navigate the streets.
    5/ Supermarket checkout sirens for items over 300 cals.

    We'll soon be a thin nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 620.

    Here's a comment I heard recently that I think is very apt.

    If you saw how laws and sausages were made you would never trust or eat another one!

    Just take all kids round a sausage/burger factory and they wouldn't touch the stuff.

    My daughter was told by a teacher what went into sausages over 20 years ago, she loved them but has never eaten one since!

  • rate this

    Comment number 619.

    When you see some of the supermarket trollies filled to overflowing with all manner of sweet and starchy foods and then look at the person/s pushing the trolly - nine times out of ten they are grossly obese. I am not talking about a "spare tyre" round their middle (which I have myself to be honest) but HUGE tummies and posteriors. I feel quite sorry for these people who must know it's UNHEALTHY.

  • rate this

    Comment number 618.

    "Dawn Holben
    I walk for miles with my two dogs and am always on the go and only eat three small meals a day."

    Then you'll probably find its the doughnuts, cakes and bisuits you eat between meals that are the problem. You may not even be aware you're eating them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 617.

    well teach them in school with there p.e crap they pull out these days i mean get a grip there young push them abit. sick of this carnt be botherd crap and how the teachers dont care. to botherd about when there next long break is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 616.

    People need to make choices, but if a person has a lack of understanding of health food, and only a small budged as l know health type food can and is expensive Also food that state that is low in fat ect may not be. But while there is money to be made the big company will make it also the 24hr shopping online shopping does not help

  • rate this

    Comment number 615.

    These have gone to be replaced by the multinational express stores that only sell what THEY want you to buy, and they rarely stock a good selection of fresh produce. "

    I'm sorry, this is untrue. ASDA, Tesco, Sainbury, Morriomns, the Coop all stock a wide range of fresh food in their main stores and a respectable range in their Express stores.

  • rate this

    Comment number 614.

    The goverment and junk food manufacturers need to take more responsibility. After all junk food is not good for anyone, not just overweight people.

    I would like to see more recognition of the fact that, unlike with other unhealthy habits such as smoking and alcoholism, overweight people have to confront food every day in order to stay alive, they cannot avoid it completely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 613.

    The UK has some of the highest taxes on alcohol in the world; it also has the worst problem with drunkenness in Europe.

    Taxing junk food won't help - or won't help much. Education might.

    But obesity is mainly a lifestyle choice for people whose only real pleasure is eating. It will probably be a lot harder to address than Anne Milton would like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 612.

    potatolord @ 386 – can we also fine those people who know nothing about the subject and simply exercise by jerking their little knees when the subject arises?

  • Comment number 611.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 610.

    fed up with being spoon fed, why dont they give vouchers for fruit and veg instead of benefits prob spent on alcohol and cigarettes. No one mentions the latest 'unhealthy', kids drinking energy drinks so high in caffeine, they will wreck their hearts soon, but no one tries to make this illegal? I dnt buy most of my old fav food now as they taste bland with low salt...

  • rate this

    Comment number 609.

    " SteBeardface
    It isn't hard to eat healthily, but it is very expensive to do so. Fresh meats and vegatables are costing way too much nowadays, it is much easier and somewhat cheaper to buy these ready meals"

    I'm sorry, this is totally false.

  • rate this

    Comment number 608.

    Worrying I am technically 'overweight'...6ft3 almost 15 stone but muscle mass rather than fat! I think the BMI is a little too general and cynical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 607.

    tackle obesity, fat chance of that.
    nato calls for restraint on all side in libya - while we bomb gadaffi !


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