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 1466.

    1459. Emily Emily

    Wise words indeed. Although considering the number of ignorami who dutifully frequent these boards, your comment may have fallen on deaf ears.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1465.

    High fat,/High sugar foods are not only everywhere they are actively pushed by all the supermarkets-such an easy way to make money. Supermarkets need to be forced to act responsibly by taking the goodies away from the front of the store where it's all too tempting to drop one into the trolley. It's obvious that the supermarkets don't give a don't give a damn about anything except making money!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1464.

    Wrote to health minister 3+yrs ago saying to tax junk food and SUBSEDISE health food. Health food is so expensive and junk food so cheap. If you dont have a big shopping budget buy cheap stuff. fish fruit nd veg is not affordable for the avarage person. one you stuck in the habit it is hard to pull out . cheaper healthy food would help specially if junk is not so cheap. narrow the gap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1463.

    1454 No, Greg what world are YOU living in.
    I never said it was easier to eat healthily but it certainly can be cheaper - I get sick of hearing the poverty myth as an excuse for eating ready made or fast-food always and thus becoming obese. Personally I find the effort involved to cook isn't hard or time consuming but then I've done it all my life as I feel it's something sufficiently important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1462.

    Life is a lot easier if you have a car to pick up your fruit and veg from the supermarket. Vegetables and fruit go off very quickly and need to be replenished daily. People who do not have cars, have to spend money and time on taxi's and public transport which is expensive, time consuming and tiring.

    Time vs. Money.

    Who wants to spend their life constantly frequenting the supermarket?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1461.

    In todays society, we just sit at work, using a computer just like I am now, we dont even walk around to talk to work colleagues, just e-mail, we dont visit family, or friends just send text, We dont excercise just us a Wi game, We dont walk to work, its usually to far, We dont go shopping, we do it online, we dont cook, just order deliver to door, So we have become lazy and the weight creeps up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1460.

    How about encouraging health in kids by letting them use their natural desire to run, jump and exercise? When kids are four years old and enjoy what is healthy for them, we train them to sit in a classroom for 5 hrs a day,even though research shows that long hours do not improve learning outcomes. Kids could learn in the classroom in the morning, and be physically active in the afternoon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1459.

    An obese person needs to eat less calories & exercise more
    An alcoholic needs to stop drinking
    A heroin addict needs to stop injecting themselves with smack

    Most people know what to do, but doing it can be incredibly difficult, and without being in the situation & having lived someone's life it's very difficult to understand how hard this is for them, whatever their coping mechanism is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1458.

    Another point i'd like to make..

    Taxing anything which punishes the intelligent part of society (those who eat and exercise sensibly) in order to 'help' the unintelligent or unwilling part of society (those who have no willpower and eat beyond their requirements knowing it is bad for them) has the perverse effect of encouraging stupid behaviour. It is a self fulfilling prophecy. Evolution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1457.

    Tax on food is V.A.T and we don`t have it on food.No food is unhealthy,it becomes unhealthy if you eat the same thing every day.There are chemicals in some processed food that make you want more causing binge eating.
    I would`nt trust a social engineer who wants to make me eat what they want because they too are supporting another industry.No matter how healthy,you can still fall under a bus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1456.

    People, lets expose a myth that has been peddled.

    Junk food is not the problem. Its just an way for middle class people to sneer at chavs and believe the problem is down to the benefit class eating burgers and chips. The problem is eating too much food. That includes fat middle and upper classes eating steak and fois gras in a swanky restaurant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1455.


    Maybe so but I have been having so much fun leading a hedonsitic lifestyle which has been to the full. I would rather lead 60 years of a full life doing everything I wanted to do than hold back and die wishing I had done more in some nursing home with my memory going when in my 80's.

    Already 75% way through my 'bucket list'

  • rate this

    Comment number 1454.


    I'm sorry but what world are you living in? It is both much more expensive and considerably more difficult and time consuming to eat healthily than it is to eat junk and ready made meals.

    While I agree everybody should eat healthily and cook the majority of their own meals (and things like bulk preparation help) to pretend it is easier and cheaper is just delusional and misses the point

  • rate this

    Comment number 1453.

    The issue is nothing to do with food or obesity. Obesity in this and other countries is a symptom of two things:

    1. A lack of learnt discipline and willpower developed when growing up

    2. Growing up in a society which has been encouraged to ask itself "what are you doing about my problem?", instead of "what can I do about my problem?"

    Looting, Expense fiddling, Rioting, obesity. All down to this

  • rate this

    Comment number 1452.

    #1450 I am fat. This is because I live in a democracy
    I am also fat because I like food & beer and think exercise is monumentally boring
    Also eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1451.

    1450. Nemesis65

    Well, when you're diagnosed with a serious heart condition, arthritis or type 2 diabetes (if you happen to make it that far), you can remind us all of what an incredibly wonderful experience it's been.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1450.

    I am fat. This is because I live in a democracy and have the ability to decide my own way of life without reference to the bossy, finger wagging brigade who 'know best'. You know who you are! I am also fat because I like food & beer and think exercise is monumentally boring along with the type of people who go to the gym regularly.

    Only other people are bothered about MY weight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1449.

    1444 Magnify 1SA
    I certainly agree there! But I think it's only a tiny minority who have those sorts of attitude, we should try to educate them! :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 1448.

    Fast food is the ONLY food poor family's can afford with their income literally. If you want people to eat healthy then you lower the tax on healthy food not raise the tax on unhealthy foods and force people to buy already expensive healthy food. This will only trade one problem for another because this country will end up having MORE family's that cant afford to feed them self's in this economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1447.

    1438 Nonsense- I don't have pots of money to spend on food but still manage to eat healthily because I use fresh local ingredients & take time & trouble to cook. I grow fruit & veg in pots & a family member has an allotment. Anyone can do this, it only costs about £10 a year but you have to be prepared to put some effort in. I come from the North East as it happens.


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