7 Reasons Why The Government Won’t Tackle Obesity…
With elections every 4 or 5 years the governing party has no interest in passing any legislation which may inflict short-term pain on the electorate.
1. The Power of the Food Industry
Obesity is caused, in large part, by the over-consumption of cheap, nutritionally poor foodstuffs. The huge costs associated with this consumption are not borne by the producer and so are not represented in the price. The traditional way to deal with this market failure would be to impose a tax on the producer equal to the costs.
However, the value of the UK Food & Grocery market is over £165bn (Source GlobalData). Some of the individual players in that market are huge and already generate massive tax revenues for the Treasury through sales (VAT) and corporation taxes. A strong food industry able to feed the population is also seen as an important national security objective.
Put simply — these guys wield significant power — governments don’t like to piss them off.
2. The Risk to Employment
The Takeaway and Fast Food sector alone employs 428,000 people (Ibisworld). Any measures that may affect employment would have negative economic repercussions in the short term and hence be politically unpopular.
3. The Nanny State
Any government legislation that is deemed to reduce personal choice is described as Nanny State and can be very unpopular. In the UK, proposals of this kind are always opposed by a powerful body of politicians, as well as large parts of the electorate.
“I just don’t agree with a sugar tax because I hate being told what to do. Leave me to make my own decisions, thank you.” Nadiya Hussain, TV Chef
4. The Regressive Nature of Taxation
Poorer sectors of the population are more reliant on cheap, processed foods and fast food. While taxation is an obvious policy tool with which to try and tackle obesity, it would be politically sensitive as it is likely to be regressive in the short term. A regressive tax is one that disproportionately affects the poor because they have less income.
Meanwhile, there is an ever-increasing gulf in obesity rates between the most and least deprived areas of the country. For example, childhood obesity in the most deprived 10% of the country has doubled compared to the least deprived where 26% of kids can be classified as obese (kingsfund.org.uk).
5. The Understated Cost to the Health Service
The cost of obesity-related illnesses to our National Health Service was estimated at £6.1bn in 2014/15 and was forecast to rise to 9.7bn by 2050. The current figure amounts to only 3% of the total budget for the Department of Health and Social Care. This seemingly insignificant number under-represents the total cost of all diet-related illnesses on the NHS and only serves to reinforce the lack of urgency in government to act.
6. The Cost to Society is Hard to Measure
Obesity not only affects productivity in ways which are difficult to measure but massively impacts mental health and quality of life in general. The difficulty in quantifying the cost of obesity makes it harder for governments to formulate policies to deal with it.
7. The Conflicting Advice — Sugar or Fat?
The nutritional advice served up by the government is out of date. Governments have persevered with broadly the same advice for 40 years due to pressure from the food industry and a general reluctance to change. However, the conflict between government advice and the now widely available scientific evidence makes the formulation of coherent policies to tackle obesity even more challenging.
While the government and the electorate choose to prioritise short-term rewards over long-term consequences, the food industry will continue to profit at the expense of public health and the wider environment.
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