Westminster council’s obesity fix is a step in the wrong direction


Alexzandar Swatton  writes on a number of issues, both for this blog and others. A recent politics & sociology graduate from the University of Sheffield, Alex is a former business proprietor and a life-long, active member of  the Labour Party. 

Phillipa Roe, the leader of the Tory controlled Westminster council is suggesting implementing the “bright, forward thinking, and radical” ideas of a controversial report that could see overweight and obese constituents punished through the benefit system.

Claims that forcing GP prescribed exercise on claimants will “help people lead healthier, happier lives” by government think-tank The Local Government Information Unit, have failed to gain credible backing from senior figures at the British Medical Association. Dr Bruchmann described the ideas as “draconian” and as “some of the silliest I have heard in a lifetime”.

Propositions include GP’s prescribing exercise to overweight benefit recipients in the form of gym and leisure centre subscriptions. Roe suggests that claimants could be monitored via the use of an electronic smart card system, although no details were given of the costs involved. If claimants failed to adhere to the enforced regimes then they risk losing benefits, such as Job Seekers Allowance, Housing, and Council Tax benefits; a move that effectively targets the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Critics of this hard line stance state that the ‘facts’ proffered to support such a policy are based on fundamentally flawed science. Linking welfare payments to supposedly healthy lifestyles sets a dangerous precedent, especially when you use questionable ‘evidence’. Jonathon Carr-West of the LGiU celebrates the move as a “win-win early intervention programme” but historic evidence casts a large shadow over the claims, and the programme could produce minimal, or even no effect at all.

Science fiction over science fact has prevailed since the early 1970’s amongst western governments with regards to dietary consistency. The 2010 New York Times Bestselling book ‘Why We Get Fat’ by Gary Taubes received international acclaim when it brought to public attention many of the myths surrounding food consumption and links to exercise. Western governments, including our own here in the UK, seem united in recommending we eat our 5-a-day, with a ‘balanced’ diet of whole-grains, and that we reduce fat, salt, and sugar content as well as committing to at least 30 minutes of daily exercise. On the surface it all seems like legitimate advice but, as Taubes revealed over and over, there is no historic or proven scientific evidence that confirms exercise has any bearing on human weight control!

In 2007, 10 expert authors from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the activity promoting American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) concluded after an exhaustive scientific research trial that:

“It would be reasonable to assume that persons with relatively high daily energy expenditures would be less likely to gain weight over time, compared with those who have low energy expenditures. So far, data to support this hypothesis is not particularly compelling.”

No-one doubts the need to change attitudes and tackle obesity, but is it only a problem for the poorest in society? Should they be made to suffer only? The 2012 NHS Health Survey for England revealed obesity levels for men at 24% and women at 26% whilst those considered overweight were 65% and 58% respectively. Such startling figures indicate that is a society-wide problem and not merely class prejudiced. Westminster Council’s proposals stop short only of criminalising the poor, effectively they are sanctioning individuals who do not conform to a strict idea of human perfection.

As well as ignoring actual science, the proposals play into the typical right-wing rhetoric that poor, obese people are just lazy shirkers. Interestingly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) blames the epidemic of obesity on RISING incomes, shifts towards less physical work, and more passive leisure pursuits; a lifestyle description that would be more applicable to say, MP Eric Pickles, over your typical job-seeker. In 2008, The British Medical Journal Group published research in which they calculated the prevalence of obesity for adults at 34% amongst lower and manual working classes, and at 29% amongst middle and upper management classes, either way its arguable at about a third of the population regardless of class standing.

The notion that humans are getting more sedentary is again just playing to the media, how is it that we are all lazier, yet the leisure industry is thriving with the advent of Banatynes, Virgin, and Living Well centres, amongst others, popping up all over the country? The fitness trend in fact started in the 1970’s (coincidentally around the same time of the changing food ‘advice’), noticeable in the apparition of health clubs in the US; in 1972 the industry generated $200m, by 2005 it had multiplied to a staggering $16bn. In 1970 the New York marathon attracted 137 applicants, by 2005 there were 68,000! Hardly proof we are getting lazier. Could it just be that food manufacturers ARE to blame and that so-called staple food products are damaging your health? The consumer protection group Which? has campaigned and reported on the hidden dangers of breakfast cereals for over two decades. In their last survey they found that out of 100 well known cereals, 85% contained ‘a lot’ of sugar by Food Standards Authority guidelines, whilst 40% contained high levels of salt. Many of these cereals were supposedly ‘health’ brands and unwittingly confuse consumers.

Whilst the intention of helping the long-term jobless is admirable, the proposed actions by Westminster Council are deplorable. Ignoring scientific reality, listening to the ‘advice’ of a self interested food industry, and acting as judge, jury and executioner are not in the remit of local authorities. The lack of punitive action targeting obese but wealthier constituents also makes a damning social statement that pedals propaganda and attaches stigma to those in an already unfortunate situation.

What is worrying more is that this week, shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, announced that Labour would launch a consultation with the food industry but still reeled off the rhetoric of the old flawed science. Labour should lead the way here and not just consult with the powerful food industry but also liaise with actual scientific experts and work towards realising some actual, measurable results.

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