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 686.

    "changes in society"what changes will they be then?was it the decimation of our industry that made four million men idol?maybe, it is that all the resouces go to the south east corner of england?Mmm,it is a conundrum isn't it.when i was in my youth there was no such thing as obesity, fat kids were like rocking horse poo,we seemed to be a lot healthier,all that school milk i guess? thatcher now???

  • rate this

    Comment number 685.

    Why should the Government have to be responsible for persuading lazy people to eat and keep fit? It's a personal choice that the individual has to make."

    If this choice had no consequences and costs for society (for which the government is society's agent) then this would be fair. But there are costs of healthcare, reduced employment prospects, higher sickpay etc to the taxpayer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 684.

    Before I make this comment I'd like to point out that I went for a Chinese last August and decided I was too fat so went on a diet and have lost weight.

    BUT. If I want to eat myself stupid and get really fat that MY decision. I pay my taxes. As I've said a number of times on various topics. Govt by all means give us advice. BUT we're NOT your subjects. I'm an adult and I can make up my own mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 683.

    I do wish people would stop making such sweeping statements as "Obesity-related problems, such as diabetes". My son, aged 9 years has Type 1 diabetes. He is not obese nor are the great majority of the other children who develop this. The cause of Type 1 diabetes is still unknown so articles such as this mislead the general public and cause distress to families such as myself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 682.

    All the government need to do is just add another 10kg. or so to the threshold for determining obesity. That would cut the number of obese people in a single stroke.

    It's only what they already do with unemployment figures, by not counting people on various courses that lead nowhere as unemployed .....

  • rate this

    Comment number 681.

    Bordeom, dissatisfaction with life and not enough money to use meaningfully are indicated. Much overeating will be emotionally based. Many people won't feel safe walking/jogging locally; gyms are expensive; after a day at work it's hard to raise the energy to do anything but cook/eat a meal and slob in front of the TV, then reach for sweets/cakes etc. Our lives are not as carefree as they were.

  • rate this

    Comment number 680.

    541.Sue Doughcoup
    Extra taxes on clothes over a size 16 is unfair given that this is now the average dress size of British women. Although having said that, I sort of agree with you about the air fairs, simply because if an individual exceeds their baggage allowance they are fined by the airline, yet severely obese people are not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 679.

    sidney lotterby 663 . We could always shout 'fatty' from a long distance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 678.

    .The young women in the deli has just asked me if I wanted light mayo on my turkey salad sandwich I thought about what the thin fascists have been saying in the media all day then told her to spread it on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 677.

    At uni instead of getting beer and chips for lunch my friends snack on humous and veg sticks and most people carry bottles of water around. Researchers need to look at how the next generation think, not the older generation that didn't understand about healthly food. I'v been bombarded with info on blood sugar, fatty foods, carb diets and high-salt foods since I was young so yes I do understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 676.

    Go for the tax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 675.

    Eat less, move more.

    Job done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    Why doesn't the NHS launch a course for people who want to lose weight - they have something similar for Diabetese Type ll suffers (which I attended and it was excellent) it only needed a little tweaking! I'm sure lots of us would be prepared to pay - look how many people pay Weight Watchers and Slimming World! Come on NHS - even if it only breaks even on costs it will save money in the long run.

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    I once read that 100 good laughs = about 10 minutes exercise. Having followed this HYS, I'm feeling fitter already. About the only benefit from the "advice" contributed here from the health police is that one would die healthier, but not necessarily sooner nor necessarily happier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    Sorry, but 50% of people will not be obese by 2030. 30m people (probably 35m by then) will not be dangerously overweight. It just doesn't make sense.

    Besides, the BMI index must also be taken with a pinch of salt - a lot of weight can be put on through muscle, rather than fat. You can be musclular, but obese. Doesn't make sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    One of the e-petitions currently doing quite well is one to ban trans fats, trans fats make food containing them easier & cheaper to manufacture but according to some studies cause a fat increase greater than that associated with its calorific value as well as having significant other detrimental health effects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    We live in a world with an exploding population artificially kept alive by medicine. I don't want to live forever, nor be forced to by quacks wanting to enforce their choices on everyone. Let me enjoy life, eating and drinking what I choose. The government should do nothing to restrict peoples freedom of choice.

    I olan to die at a good age, not after years of dotage prolonged by doctors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    The goverment should be subsidizing healthy food pricing. i have switched to all healthy stuff and i have found its cheaper to make all my dinners from scratch but i wouldnt care if it did cost more as i see it as an investment, whats your life worth! Cookery classes in schools should be compulsery, maybe it is now but all i made was cakes in school 8 years ago

  • Comment number 668.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 667.

    @ LeicesterChap
    Abosulutely spot on. There is no one size fits all diet. Everyone has an Achilles heal. Mine was also carbs in the form of bread and spuds. I reduced them and also counted my calories. Same as you, I started cycling for two hours a day and lost 4 and a half stones. More importantly, I have kept it off. No magic bullet.


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