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 1506.

    Rather than tax making the nutritional information big enough to read would go a long way to helping.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1505.

    have we no freedom of choice anymore??
    As good an example of the power of the junk-food marketing board as you'll ever get.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1504.

    I eat a healthy diet almost everyday and excercise regularly and have lost over 6 stone to get down to a size 8. I thought things would be perfect once achieved and though am happy with my weight I am sick and tired of people in goverment telling smokers, drinkers and the added pound brigade that all they do in life is cost the NHS money. What about the human factor and the kindness within us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1503.

    The markets and jobs and houses are all built too far apart to walk between--and those few houses that aren't, cost more than most can afford. Also, nobody has time to cook--who will spend half an hour making a meal fresh when tinned food is ready in three minutes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1502.

    Public health minister Anne Milton...
    A bit slim ? but we could only see the top third !!
    It might help if she Knew what she was talking about.
    Prime example of a MP spouting rubbish to justify their job,
    The only job in the world that needs no reference.
    Did Milton do a degree in public health ?
    Like the rest of MP's, have no idea of the job they are given.
    Then have the cheek to dictate to us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1501.

    Who the h**l is Public health minister Anne Milton: "We're too fat and we need to do something about it"
    Tax it !.
    Bouncers on the doors of Fish n' Chip shops. !
    OOh forget all that, just tax ,you already know that will hit low income familis
    But please don't worry about us, we can pay more and more tax.
    Once upon a time, after swiming club was a treat of a burger meal. Dont worry about us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1500.

    I recall what looking like Twiggy led to, but who could not remember Ireland's Women that were once cerebrated for their shape. No ... not time for any government to entertain what would follow, but to give every individual the nutritionist and physician that allows one to be what they were born to be.
    Govern two cows that need three hundred milkers, then what happens as the resulting conclusion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1499.

    1497. hellomydarlings
    We are miserable and boring aren't we Tiffany.



  • rate this

    Comment number 1498.

    It's easy to criticise others, easy to gain weight, difficult to lose it. People have busy lives, everything is becoming more expensive. Go into any supermarket and you see lots of "cheap" rubbish on sale. Good quality food = expensive which some people just can't afford. Yes, we need to tackle obesity. And yes, we need to tackle bigotry such as I have read here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1497.

    1493. Tiffany
    1483. Abdi
    Nah, it's just the usual herd of miserable misanthropes who are compelled to put their nihilistic 2 pennies in. Whether the topic is Jerry Leiber's death, the England riots or obesity it's always the same boring mantra.

    We are miserable and boring aren't we Tiffany.
    Good nIght.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1496.

    have we no freedom of choice anymore??

  • rate this

    Comment number 1495.

    why are comments that are against government policy blocked??

  • rate this

    Comment number 1494.

    why should we allow a government to tell us what we can and can't do??surely it is up to the individual to make his or her choices.if we spent less on wars in which we have no reason to be involved with then we could spend more money on things that concern us

  • rate this

    Comment number 1493.

    1483. Abdi
    Suprised this has generated so many comments, apparently many obese people were offended?
    Nah, it's just the usual herd of miserable misanthropes who are compelled to put their nihilistic 2 pennies in. Whether the topic is Jerry Leiber's death, the England riots or obesity it's always the same boring mantra.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1492.

    Why should people who cost the NHS the bare minimum be taxed for enjoying a piece of cake every now and then? Yet again may I object to the lack of distinction between type one and type two diabetes in relation to obesity -- obesity only contributes to type two diabetes. Those of us with type one have an auto-immune disease not caused in any way by our weight or eating habits

  • rate this

    Comment number 1491.

    The ONLY way to effectivly loose weight is by burning more calories than you consume. It is too late for many older people now, as it requires a tremendous amount of willpower to effectivly do this after years of being overweight, however, if we target primary and secondary schools, with more P.E and "playtime", I believe that this problem can be adressed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1490.

    Tax on "unhealthy" food? I'm going to guess that'll eventually get extended to also cover whatever is being blamed for cancer this week.

    Gov't last week also wanted to hike up utility bills by demanding more money from road works. Seems to think the solution to everything is tax. Tax won't stop rich people overindulging..

    Restrict entrances to fastfood joints to 1ft wide, maximum. Solved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1489.

    All those people in offices munching on cakes and crisps and scones every morning.

    The government wants in on the action!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1488.

    After fatty foods they'll probably legalise and tax low level drugs.

    Tax tax tax tax

  • rate this

    Comment number 1487.

    @1482 While i don't believe what you've said if it did actually have any truth surely purchasing some vitamin supplements would prove to be a lower cost option to buying more cheap food to "over-eat" for nutrional value?


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