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 1486.

    Like cigarettes/alcohol/illegal drugs there is money to be made of it. The government's cut the customs & excise so that more drugs fags &
    booze are available. Fattening food is well protected from being a good healthy standard.Sweets /chocolate similarly exempt. Why?The population is getting older lets ensure thats stopped! Drink/baccy Co's not paying enough party dues. Druggies lives limitited.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1485.

    Politicians are amongst the worst offenders as far as obesity is concerned.
    The Scottish Parliament for example, is known as telly tubby land by it's own MSPs.

    The REAL reason for all this obesity propaganda from places like the BBC is because the government needs more tax money, and fatty foods are going to be taxed.

    They've got motorists, smokers, and drinkers taxed to death, eaters are next.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1484.

    Taxation is not the solution; it is part of the problem - food is too expensive. While there may not be tax on raw food ingredients, there is tax i the processes that convert it into food that is retailed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1483.

    Suprised this has generated so many comments, apparently many obese people were offended?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1482.

    26th August 2011 - 23:29
    "Unless theres someone going around with a gun and a big tub of lard, people are eatting unhealthy food out of choice..."

    Get real. The gun is low income and lack of choice. On a low income - you buy and eat the low cost rubbish that is on offer. And you end up fat because to get the vitamins etc that you neeed you have to "over eat".

  • rate this

    Comment number 1481.

    Tax junk food !!! I have never heard so much rubbish !!!
    I suppose those who want to tax do not have kids and do not have the friday "fish n' Chips" after swim club or the "Burger treat" on a saturday after football or shopping trip. And mabey MUM might like a night off !!!!!
    WHAT about the Vast majority of low income families, they really need another tax increase.
    NO use a hammer to crack a nut.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1480.

    The only tough action needed by governments is to cut ALL the sugar and extraneous carbohydrates from food (i.e. all addititives added for the sole convenience of food manufacturers) and to ensure that the food we eat is real food not over-processed cardboard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1479.

    L istless
    A bominable
    Z ombie
    Y awn
    This about add's up today with people carrying all that extra FAT!
    The so called 'dogooders' sure took the fun out of poking fun. I remember 'Billy Bunter' (a kids TV programe) and it was funny with all the fat jokes. Mind you we couldn't afford to get fat in those days! We used to WALK and PLAY outside and NEVER heard of that word "BORED'!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1478.

    I have question!!
    In the BBC news behind the reporter there was a water fountain park, does anyone one what is that place and where??

  • rate this

    Comment number 1477.

    FUNNY (644.marie) *locally reared chicken" The majority of people in danger of obesity do not live in fancy villages like yourself Marie but on estates, lrc* pls do me a favour. The supermarkets need to be told to stop putting crap on offer at cheap pricing, enticing the poor into nice food for cheap prices and start offering healthy food on offer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1476.

    I am in my late 70's, horrified and worried with the fast rate of obesity. The nutritional information given on most food item is too confusing for most people to take note. Make it simpler and prominent on the FRONT of packaging, like "Aim for 2,000cal. a day this meal will use xxx cal. of your daily allowance" and mark more prominent 100g = ??? cal. The dial nutritional sign is not working.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1475.

    They say we as a nation are 10 years behind the USA in trends.

    Yup, I can see the link...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1474.

    I blame giving women the vote - think about it!!!

    Women get their rights, they leave the kitchens of the world, obesity follows! Ladies, get back home and cooking, instead of hunting Jimmy Choos, and your kids will grow up healthy and strong because you're there for them..

  • rate this

    Comment number 1473.

    I am not fat through choice. I eat a healthy diet - low fat & plenty of fruit & veg. But I have severe arthritis in my knees (that I have had for 20 years - even when slim) and that and other problems has severely limited my mobility. I walk as much as I can but it means that losing weight is very hard for me. I am doing it - slowly. But I object to being judged and commented on by others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1472.

    Wasn't it Margaret Thatcher who allowed food additive laws to be relaxed such that we are now fed a host of additives and preservatives?...
    So it its Maggie's fault? I should have known.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1471.

    Wasn't it Margaret Thatcher who allowed food additive laws to be relaxed such that we are now fed a host of additives and preservatives? and just think about how our daily bread is mass produced, and the junk in that to make it last longer! Now the government wants to tax US!! for the 'pleasure'. How's about tax food suppliers for producing so much junk food in the first place!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1470.

    Unless theres someone going around with a gun and a big tub of lard, people are eatting unhealthy food out of choice and surely they have the right to make that choice so while easier to understand packaging (personnally i dont find it hard to understand now but...) is welcome forcing people via regulations or tax is just taking away there right to choose how they live there life

  • rate this

    Comment number 1469.

    In Sout africa the medical aid offers free gym memebership to the top gym franchise to clients . keeping theit medical cost down .

  • rate this

    Comment number 1468.

    And another thing ... we should have calorie information on everything - restaurants, takeaways etc Sainsburies have started to do this in their restaurants and when you see its about 1200 calories for a all day breakfast it makes you think twice! They have this in the USA so why not here?. Having a cold hard number there means that you can't kid yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1467.

    Just to also add the lack of sun and the mostly depressing cliamate adds to the problem. Lets face it if we had nice weather all the time we would all be out and about all the time . We cant solve this problem sadly . But reconizing this as a factor might help the treatment .


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