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Obesity is damaging the nation’s health and wealth

(Alamy)

4 min read

Successive governments have sought to reduce obesity through 14 strategies over 30 years – all of which have failed to fix the broken food system.

The obesity crisis is a severe threat to our health which is also hampering our nation’s economic growth, workforce productivity and adding to huge avoidable pressures facing our NHS.

The broken food system is fuelling an obesity and fatty liver disease epidemic. Two-thirds of adults in the United Kingdom are overweight or obese, of which 70 per cent are estimated to have fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease is a major killer as it has a multiplier effect on heart disease, diabetes and a multitude of cancers including liver, breast and bowel cancer.

Successive strategies to promote a 'personal responsibility' approach have failed time and again

On International NASH Day today there will be a Westminster Hall debate on preventing obesity and fatty liver disease.  According to the British Liver Trust, up to 12 per cent of adults have NASH (Non-Alcohol-Related Steatohepatitis), which is a severe form of fatty liver disease. Childhood obesity is increasing at the fastest pace ever recorded and up to four in 10 obese children are estimated to have fatty liver disease – inconceivable just a decade ago. 

Like obesity, liver disease has increased dramatically since the 1970s, mortality rates have grown by 400 per cent. Liver disease is a barometer for our nations failing health. While 90 per cent of liver disease is preventable, it causes over 10,000 deaths every year with mortality rates four times higher in the most deprived areas. Liver cancer is now the fastest rising cause of cancer death in the UK and causes around 5,800 deaths every year.

This is not just a debate on public health but a wider debate on the impact of the nation’s declining health on our workforce productivity. The nation’s health is an economic asset. As population health declines, workforce activity and productivity declines, damaging growth and living standards.  Obesity is a significant driver of ill health and costs the economy £58bn annually.

The cost of obesity to the NHS alone is projected to rise to 9.7bn by 2050, with obese patients already costing the NHS twice as much as those with a healthy weight. Put plainly, if you are unwell, you can’t work or will be less productive and have more days off sick. Long-term sickness has risen by one-third since 2010 to seven million.

Obesity is an unintended consequence of the broken food system. Like car emissions, it was not the intention of the automotive sector to cause global environmental harm. Likewise, obesity is an outcome of the junk food cycle and the production and marketing of foods high in fat, sugar and salt, which deliver the highest profit, while causing significant damage to the nation’s health and wealth.

There is a solution but one which will require political leadership and resolve, and one which the electoral cycle politically disincentivises. Successive strategies to promote a “personal responsibility” approach have failed time and again. If we are to meaningfully address this generational health challenge, government needs to provide a level playing field and market certainty for industry to deliver a food system that improves the health of the nation.

Industry is committed to the reformulation of products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) but businesses cannot significantly reformulate without a regulatory framework in place to ensure there is a level playing field and market certainty.

As Sir Chris Whitty pointed out to the Health Select Committee recently, industry says: “We’d quite like to do this [reformulation], but if you don’t put a regulation in place, our competitors will try to undercut us.”.

Population wide measures – such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – are highly effective in reducing the harm caused by the unhealthy food and drink environment. Delivering the delayed multi-buy restrictions and 9pm watershed on junk food advertising on TV and online, is a vital next step.

If we are to successfully compete in a global economy, we need a healthy workforce and nation, which demands the government take bold action to deliver a clear plan for industry, a level playing field and market certainty to reshape our broken food system.

 

Maggie Throup, Conservative MP for Erewash

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