Tag Archives: Food

The food industry vs. the nation’s health: interview with anti-obesity campaigner Tam Fry

The food industry vs. the nation’s health: interview with anti-obesity campaigner Tam Fry
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 October 2022

The UK has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, according to a May report from the World Health Organisation. As the research noted, obesity is associated with many diseases, including musculoskeletal complications, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and at least 13 types of cancer.

In 2017 Public Health England estimate the overall cost of obesity to wider society at £27 billion per year.

Tam Fry, the Chairman of the National Obesity Forum and an Expert Advisory Team Member at Action On Sugar, tells Ian Sinclair what he thinks about the Truss government’s plans on obesity, and what policies might actually work to address the deep-rooted problem.

Ian Sinclair: According to the UK Health Security Agency, in 1980 6 per cent of men in England were obese (those with a Body Mass Index over 30). By 1993 it had more than doubled to 13 per cent, and by 2019 it had doubled again to 27 per cent. Why have obesity rates increased so quickly in England and the rest of the UK?

Tam Fry: Obesity rates in the UK have risen so quickly because no government in the last thirty years has succeeded in formulating a strategy that has any chance of stemming the epidemic. A review paper from Cambridge University published in January last year (‘Is Obesity Policy in England fit for Purpose?’, The Millbank Quarterly) concluded that every attempt to come up with a workable set of measures was doomed to fail. And there is nothing coming out of new Health Secretary Thérèse Coffey that gives any hope for success in the future. Ironically her mantra “ABCD” is the US obesity specialists’ description of the condition – Adipose-Based Chronic Disease! No government, of whatever hue, has addressed the principal cause for the nation’s overweight: without serious curbs being slapped on a food industry that persists in lacing its products with excessive levels of fat, salt and sugar – three of the principal drivers of obesity – and continues to market the worst products at attractively low prices, levels will not fall significantly.

IS: How do you respond to the common argument obesity is a failure of individual willpower?

TF: The common argument that obesity is a failure of individual willpower was all the rage in the early years of this century and it was a very easy way for government to escape taking any blame. But all that went out of the window in 2007 when the Foresight Report was published. The report was the result of two years intensive work into obesity commissioned by the Labour government and it clearly established that the obesogenic environment in which we all live was the main cause of the problem. It recognised that few individuals would be able to withstand the incessant advertising and marketing of food and, the lower down the social scale they were, the more difficult it would be to resist the onslaught.

The incoming 2010 Conservative government then turned to a new strategy: promoting behaviour change. This was the great white hope for a few years. That ran out of steam quite quickly, however, when it became obvious that waiting for the population to change ingrained habits was akin to watching paint dry. A special office was even set up in Downing Street to oversee the process but it had little effect. The office will probably be best remembered as the ‘Nudge Unit’ but nudging was never likely to be the answer.

Running parallel with nudging, the Conservatives also mistakenly decided that it would appeal to the better nature of the food barons and came up with a “responsibility deal”. The premise was that with their promise not to legislate food production, the barons would pledge voluntarily to reformulate their products into being “healthy” items. In the expectation that industry would keep to its pledges, the government even invited senior industrialists to co-chair the committees which would implement the ‘deal’. It would be a vain hope. Pledges fell by the wayside and the deal was dead.

IS: Last month the Guardian reported the new Truss government is considering scrapping a range of anti-obesity policies, including bans on “buy one get one free” offers, displays of sweet treats at supermarket checkouts, TV adverts for junk food before the 9pm watershed, and possibly the sugar tax. You commented “Once again the interests of big business have dangerously overridden the interests of the man in the street.” How does big business influence government policy?

TF: Essentially business influences government policy by pleading dire consequences for the country if Downing Street takes any measures that might affect its profits. In a 2010  Guardian article entitled ‘Andrew Lansley’s Department of Big Macs’, Philip James, one of the UK’s top nutritionists involved in setting up the Foods Standards Agency at the turn of the century, gave two examples of the food industry at work. In the first he described how it became clear to him that ministers were under intense pressure from industry to see that the agency excluded nutrition from its portfolio and should focus solely on food safety. His second example illustrated how a report authored by him, outlining a strategy that had the potential of nipping childhood obesity in the bud, was never published at the express request of industry leaders because it suggested that advertising and marketing might influence children’s behaviour. They seemed to have ‘persuaded’ the then Minister for Public Health, Tessa Jowell, that the report was “extraordinarily radical” and that they would like to speak to James. Within days he was invited to a private chat over dinner with the industry chiefs “who considered it entirely reasonable to market products directly to children”. The report was quickly buried in some Whitehall graveyard – and there has never been anything similarly ‘radical’ since.

IS: Depressingly, many experts describe the current UK anti-obesity strategy – which the Tory government is looking at ditching – as inadequate. What policies would work?

TF: The greatest hope that something radical might be done to stem obesity came when Prime Minister Boris Johnson exited St Thomas’ Hospital having been treated for COVID-19. Realising that his own weight was identified as a contributing factor to catching the virus, he declared that he would launch a war on obesity. In July 2020 he published the measures that he was sure would start to see it off. Public health specialists were jubilant that finally some of the draconian proposals that they had been advocating for years might be about to be implemented.

It was a false dawn. The majority of the proposals that Johnson hoped would empower adults and children to live healthier lives have now been kicked into touch by Liz Truss and Coffey, and the single proposal that remains, and which has just come into force, has served only to confuse – the idea that supermarket layouts be reconfigured so that sugary items in particular be furthest from the check-out/entrance has essentially infuriated customers who are baffled as to the aisles in which they will find their desired purchases!

The only initiative to combat obesity that might, over time, have some effect in significantly reducing it is the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL). It came into effect in 2018, after Chancellor George Osborne fought lengthy battles for it within Downing Street. The SDIL knocked everyone out with its success and its continuing benefit has sparked clamours that it be extended to food items. Its success lies in the fact that it is not a tax on the drinks’ purchaser but a levy on the company bottling it. Indeed, it allowed companies to escape the levy altogether if they radically reduced the sugar content in their sodas and they embraced the idea. There are now many zero sugar or low sugar versions of drinks on sale and, would you believe, companies are profiting from it. Indeed, so immediate was the levy’s success that in 2019 Dame Sally Davies, who was England’s Chief Medical Officer at the time, made an extension of the levy her first proposal to tackle child obesity. She singled out milk based drinks (presumably milkshakes and high street coffee shop drinks etc.) as prime targets but, inevitably, any food product unreasonably high in sugar content could follow. Stripping sugar out of breakfast cereals, cakes and biscuits is also on the cards but more time is needed for reformulation to be achieved.

Book review: Sustainable Diets by Pamela Mason and Tim Lang

Book review: Sustainable Diets. How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System by Pamela Mason and Tim Lang
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2018

Far from being simply a personal choice, our diet is deeply political.

As Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang explain, the spread of the standard Western diet has had devastating consequences for people and the planet. Worldwide, obesity has nearly doubled since 1980, with poor dietary patterns the greatest contribution to non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in rich nations. “North America and Europe consume biological resources as though they inhabit multiple planets”, the authors note. The US consumes as though it inhabits five planets, Europe three.

In response, they propose the widespread adoption of sustainable diets which are able “to feed huge populations equitably, healthily and in ways that maintains the ecosystems on which humanity depends.”

In pursuit of this goal Mason and Lang have written an academic book chockful with summaries of the latest research, complete with a massive number of references. Their citing of journal articles, reports and policy documents is often relentless but there is lots of eye-opening facts to discover for readers who persevere. For example, they note the carbon footprint of the huge amount of global food waste means it ranks as the third top greenhouse gas emitter after the US and China. Elsewhere, citing a Defra-commissioned study, they explain that tomatoes grown in Spain and transported to the UK have a smaller environmental footprint than those grown in heated houses in the UK.

If sustainability is to be achieved, the evidence overwhelmingly shows rich populations need to significantly reduce the amount of meat and dairy in their diet, and increase the level of plant foods. This is a “win-win”, as a food researcher Laura Wellesley from Chatham House has explained, because plant-based diets tend to both healthier and associated with lower environmental impacts.

However, Mason and Lang do not automatically endorse a vegan diet as the solution, citing nutritional issues and its lack of social acceptance. Arguably this position inadvertently highlights a limitation of their thesis – while ‘animal welfare’ is included in their definition of sustainability, the right of animals not to be eaten by humans is not.

With a transition to sustainable diets indispensable to keeping global temperatures below 2OC, “the challenge remains awesome”, they note. And though they support long-term, interdisciplinary systems thinking, they do not seriously consider the role grassroots activists might play.

Surely set to become a core text, Sustainable Diets is a brilliant resource for those who want to be fully informed on this hugely important topic

Sustainable Diets is published by Routledge, priced £32. 

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
November 2013

The UK has a growing obesity problem. According to the annual Health Survey for England in 1980 6 per cent of men were obese – that is they had a Body Mass Index of over 30. By 1993 this had more than doubled to 13.2 per cent and by 2011 23.6 per cent of men were obese. The medical problems associated with obesity are well known – Type 2 Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, hypertension, respiratory problems, stroke and certain cancers. The Government’s 2007 landmark Foresight report estimates that by 2050 obesity and being overweight could cost the NHS £9.7 billion, with the wider cost to society estimated at £49.9 billion.

So who or what is to blame for the rise in obesity? “Ultimately it comes down to will”, argued Eastern Daily Press columnist Steve Downes recently. “What can society do to change people’s habits? Nothing, really.” You might expect the author of the best-selling memoir My Mad Fat Teenage Diary to have a wider lens of analysis. If so you’d be wrong. Writing in The Guardian last month Rae Earl noted people are often obese because of “deep-rooted psychological factors.” As adults, Earl concluded, “our weight is our personal responsibility.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on Downes and Earl – they are simply repeating popular arguments that blame obesity on the individual. As a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs explains “studies demonstrate repeatedly that judgments about obesity are linked to values of individualism, self-determination, political conservativism, and secular morality.”

There are many problems with focussing on individual behaviour when discussing obesity. First, a culture that points the finger at individuals can stigmatise, leading to bullying, discrimination and mental health problems such as depression. Research shows overweight patients sometimes delay visiting the doctor because of fear of embarrassment or judgment. Second, blaming personal choices does not help to explain obesity levels when one considers obesity has substantially increased since the 1970s and its prevalence differs considerably across national borders and social classes.

As the Foresight report notes “People in the UK today don’t have less willpower and are not more glutoness than previous generations.” And, I would add, British people are not lazier than many of their less obese European neighbours, and middle-class people do not take more personal responsibility than generally heavier working-class people. Discussing the Foresight report, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government Sir David King notes “individuals have much less choice in the matter of their weight than they would assume”. This is especially true for the poorest members of society, who tend to have much less control and choice over how they live their lives. So rather than obesity being down to personal willpower the Foresight report explains society “has radically altered over the past five decades with major changes in work patterns, transport, food production and food sales.” These changes have resulted in what experts call an “obesogenic environment”, where the political and economic structures of society end up actually encouraging obesity among the population

Some of these societal shifts include: a huge increase in the availability and affordability of calorie-dense but nutrient-poor processed foods; an increase in private car use and a corresponding decrease in the level of cycling and walking; the selling off of school playing fields; a lax planning system that has led to out-of-town supermarkets and fast food outlets being placed close to schools; healthy food ‘deserts’ in poor areas. In addition there has been a massive increase in the level of food advertising. With the UK having the dubious distinction of being the advertising capital of Europe, Food Analyst Cindy van Rijswick notes “the impact of promotions, advertising and marketing from the processed food industry is higher than in other countries.”

Arguably, many of these causes can be traced back to the neoliberal turn the country took with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the pro-business and individualistic rhetoric and policies that followed. In a letter to The Guardian earlier this year, the Secretary of The Equality Trust explained that research “shows more people are obese in more unequal countries”. And sure enough the US, UK and Australia – arguably the three Western nations where the grip of neoliberal thinking is strongest – have some of the highest levels of obesity in the Western world.

If an individualistic analysis can’t explain the rise in obesity, it’s unlikely to be useful in solving the problem either. In fact personalising the problem makes solving the crisis harder, according to Dr Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University: “As long as we have this belief that obese people are lazy and lacking in discipline, it will be hard to get support for policies that change the environment, which are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals”.

So if the rise in obesity is due to a wholesale transformation of society, then the solutions will also have to be on the same scale – led by strong government action. Radically changing the transport system so it discourages private car use and builds infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking would be a first step. The planning system needs to be altered so it encourages health living, rather than working to maximise profits for the food industry. Advertising of unhealthy foods, especially to children, needs to be highly regulated as it is in Sweden where TV advertising aimed at children under 12 has been banned since 1991. And taxes could be levelled on unhealthy foods, as Mexico is about to do.

All this, of course, would require the Government to take on corporate power. However, Professor Tim Lang and Dr Geof Rayner from the Centre for Food Policy at City University point out “there is a powerful temptation in Government to limit actions to a choice-based, personalization approach, in part because this style of intervention is aligned to the commercial sector’s own customer management and marketing methods.”

Indeed corporate influence on Government policy is so great that in 2010 The Guardian made the eye-popping revelation that “The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity.”

“Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both”, wrote Robert Newman in his 2003 novel The Fountain At The Centre Of The World. I’d like to amend Newman’s wise words in terms of obesity: Either you have a healthy population or you have private power – you can’t have both.