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 666.

    The obesity problem is due to lack of exercise. I eat more cake, biscuits and fattening foods than you can shake a stick at. I have a BMI of about 18.5, I'm 60 years of age. I don't drive a CAR, never use taxis, very rarely use buses, walk most places and cycle about 150 miles per week. Easy!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    although it is our responsibity for what we eat,I dont think that those with higher wages can comment on what families on low incomes need to do to make their budgets work.To feed a family of 4 when money is tight forces people to buy fast food/value products,you cant do this with fresh meat and fresh veg/salad.Supermarkets/freezer stores should offer healthy foods affordable for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 664.

    What I don't understand is that we are constantly told by one arm of the Government that we have to accept slashing cuts and delays in taking our pensions because most of us are going to live to 150 years old.

    Now apparently nearly half of us will be lucky to get past middle age due to obesity problems. I need a lie down in a darkened room.

  • rate this

    Comment number 663.

    I know lets have an hys where everyone can discriminate against one of the groups its still legal to discriminate against, fat people. The only thing is, the way things are going, they'll soon be the majority & the boot may then be on the other very large foot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 662.

    @ 598 "If you don't eat in the morning your body will take energy by breaking down muscle tissue, so you'll be thin. Education!"

    Sorry, but this is completely incorrect. It is true that the body will start to desynthesize muscle to get essential amino acids, but it would take many days without protein intake for that to start to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    Slim the world? Fat chance! Few people have the time to be a full time cross between Mrs Beaton and Lynford Christie. Anyway in the south Pacific region corpulence is a sign of wealth and achievement, like a Mercedes is to some people in the west. I suppose governments could legislate for health warnings to be carried on certain (most) food packaging as they do with cigarettes. And look silly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    I understand that doctors are not supposed to say that anyone is obese. How daft is that. So lots of people can just kid themselves that they are a bit overweight instead of being told that they are obese. Eating too much is one of the main reasons for this problem, others include grazing and not sitting at a table to eat meals properly. Exercise is good for both body and mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    I argue that the obesity epidemic is a direct result of those in responsibility (employers, government, principles) failing to value human beings but placing money, prestige and careers above people. We need to relearn how to value human beings and then perhaps people will respect themselves and also eachother. Our society is pathological and a bad place in which to live and bring-up children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 658.

    624.James Rigby
    "The free NHS creates moral hazard...... If everyone had to pay for healthcare, via insurance, people would be more careful with their bodies..."

    The USA and the UK are two of the developed countries with the worst rates of obesity. Why is your theory not working in the USA?

  • rate this

    Comment number 657.

    Rather than tax food we ought to seriously start thinking about removing family tax credit for those in employment who are using the benefits system to have more children at the expense of the country.

    If you want children, you pay for them entirely from your own salary. No govt help - no benefits.

    Why should I and other people subsidise you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 656.

    @604 Foot_tapper

    Not that I disagree with you but then shouldn't we include alcohol and smoking related disorders, they are self induced also? How about heart disease from poor diet and lack of exercise in thin people? 90% of illnesses can probably be traced back to poor lifestyle choices. How many of the bigots on here drink and smoke, you are just as self destructive its just not as visible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 655.

    This obsession with diet is not the answer. We can all see it's not working, almost everywhere you look - fat people, especially kids. The main problem is sedentary lifestyles. Fat is fine if it's burnt off, which it isn't today. Another point (a sore one) - anyone noticed obesity is up since smoking went down? You can't win.

  • rate this

    Comment number 654.

    Retail parks on week days ....chomping through burgers between shopping for food.
    Retail parks on weekends.chomping through burgers between shopping for food, and consumer goods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 653.

    If a 15% rise in obesity would lead to only a 2% rise in NHS spending doesn't that mean that currently around 96% of the NHS budget is spent on treating non obesity related illness, surely therefore we should actually be ramping up the tax on salad, fruit and fresh vegetables? 40% of the population being responsible for only 5 or 6% of the NHS budget sounds a pretty good deal to me :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 652.

    Healthy eating and exercise are a key part to a healthy lifestyle regardless of what size you are. Whether people think this tackles obesity or not they can't deny that a varied diet including fruit, veg, wholegrains, meat etc contain vitamins and minerals that our bodies need and exercise is necessary to keep fit and strong. Simples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 651.

    We live in a society in which people are not valued and so it is no surprise that they fail to value themselves and one another. Depression and low self-esteem could be key issues. Add to that schools that cut sport from the curriculum as league tables matter more to them than student health and office jobs that often expect workers to work 60 hours or more a week chained to a desk in a sweat shop

  • rate this

    Comment number 650.

    It's the government's so called nutritional advice that's exacerbating the obesity problem. The Food Pyramid is wrong; low-fat is wrong. Parents are scared to give their kids whole milk in case they get furred up arteries. Studies have shown that kids consuming whole milk products are thinner than those on skimmed. Why, because they're always hungry, so snack on carbs, which the body turns to FAT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 649.

    I used to be sympathetic toward clinically obese people then one day I was washing my hand at a service station toilets and say a morbidly obese lady totter into a toilet cubicle, carrying in 2 large cream cakes and a drink! She couldn't even use the toilet first, before rushing to buy her buns!

  • rate this

    Comment number 648.

    Higher tax on junk food? Brilliant idea. Lets let the rich get fatter.
    How about a tax cut on healthy food? Anyone for a breath holding contest?

    The simple answer to these 'obese' issues, is to shove less in your mouth and move about more. That doesn't mean paying £500 a month to a poncy gym and eating dolphin friendly, organic lettuce for every meal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 647.

    I have lost 11st through cutting carbs, cutting out sugar but here is the biggie...I ditched the car and cycle the 15 mile round trip to work. The impetus-realising I was going to die and not see my children grow up if. I am fitter and stronger than I have ever been. I weigh less than when I was 16. Its the hardest thing I have ever done. But it can be done. Without a gym or a diet club!


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