On Monday 27th July, Boris Johnson unveiled his much-vaunted plan to drive down Britain’s weight. The policy was, ostensibly, a sharp break from Conservative (and ‘Johnsonian’) individualism. Companies will now be required to put the calorie content of their food on the front of their packages. Restaurants will be required to do the same with their menus. There will be a public health advertising campaign to encourage people to be more active and, remarkably, GPs will be encouraged to prescribe exercise to their obese patients (as if, previously, they were prescribing an hour a day of TV). It has been welcomed by Labour and aims to tackle a public health crisis which costs the NHS £6 billion a year.
This is also a policy designed to prevent coronavirus deaths. Britain already has one of the highest death tolls in the world; officially 45,000 people have died because coronavirus in the UK, but in fact there have been 65,000 excess deaths since this began. In comparison to Vietnam’s 0, Cuba’s 87, South Korea’s 300, and Japan’s 1000, the impact of coronavirus in Britain has been catastrophic. And, as we head into winter, things are likely to become worse. People will gather indoors far more. University will have started again, with millions of students travelling back to indoor house parties and promiscuity. As the economy continues to open up, and the weather starts to decline, we face the risk of a ‘second wave’. So, given the evidence that the risk of hospitalisation and death all increase with increasing BMI, there is a strong humanitarian incentive for the government to tackle obesity, and particularly now.
Given all this, and the fact that I’m a lefty, I feel vulnerable to the accusation that to criticise this policy is simply to be contrarian. That, having campaigned for Corbyn, I am now decrying the kind of interventionist and preventative public health approach he espoused, and I supported. However, I do believe there are good reasons to be suspicious of this particular policy, in terms of both its health effects and its political motivations.
My first concern is the policy’s emphasis on calories. When I was 18, I became anorexic, and one of the means I used to control my weight was calorie counting. In my sick state, knowledge about my food was a means to control my weight and, by proxy, my emotions. Under the government’s new proposal, those with eating disorders, as well as those who have recovered but are liable to relapse, will scarcely be able to eat without being reminded of just how ‘fattening’ their food is. My fear is that such an emphasis on calories will, in the first instance, encourage impressionable teens to fixate on calories (to the point of disordered eating) and, secondly, hinder the recovery of those already struggling. It certainly would have hindered mine.
Indeed, obesity is far more likely for people living in poverty or for those under stress. This policy does not address these factors at all. It does not look at the way in which the long hours Britons work has affected our eating habits, nor does it look at the impact of phones, computers and games consoles. In fact, it completely reduces obesity to an issue of individual choice. This is why, instead of challenging Johnson’s individualism, the policy plays into it. Without addressing these known risk factors for obesity, how can this policy possibly hope to overcome such an intractable social problem as obesity?
But my ultimate fear is that the policy is not meant to tackle obesity. That the motivation for the policy is not humanitarian, but political. Throughout this crisis, the government has sought to shift responsibility for the coronavirus onto the individual. This has involved opening up beaches, and then pointing out how stupid beach goers are for spreading the virus. It has involved ‘encouragements’ to work at home, whilst the majority of people are forced back to work by their bosses. A policy drawing attention to obesity seems yet another such attempt. Whilst it will never be explicitly stated, the idea that obese people who contract coronavirus are responsible for their own demise might seep into the public consciousness and disarm righteous outrage at the government. My question is that, if the government was indeed driven purely by a desire to save lives, why tackle obesity now? Obesity was already estimated to be responsible for 30,000 deaths a year; do these deaths not matter? I think there are good reasons to oppose this particular public health initiative. Social movements should do so fully aware of the cynical manoeuvrings the Conservative Party is capable of.
Image: Peter Dawn via Flickr