UK's obesity crisis draining economy - government must curb junk food industry and promote health, writes Lord Bethell

25 January 2024, 10:45

UK's obesity crisis draining economy - government must curb junk food industry and promote health, writes Lord Bethell
UK's obesity crisis draining economy - government must curb junk food industry and promote health, writes Lord Bethell. Picture: Alamy/LBC
Lord James Bethell

By Lord James Bethell

Lord Bethell is a former health minister, chair of Business for Health and member of the House of Lords.

The obesity crisis in the UK has broken our economy and is driving our cost-of-living crisis. That is the clear view of the Office for Budget Responsibility.

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Pollsters show the public are fed up. Concern amongst voters about our state of health is rising and support for strong measures is emphatic. But policymakers have a frightening lack of urgency to act on this issue.

Meanwhile, obesity erodes our national prosperity. There are 3,000 hospital omissions a day linked to obesity, double the number from six years ago, and still rising. This costs the hard-pressed NHS £6bn a year, and a lot more to taxpayers in welfare bills and to families in misery.

To put these numbers in context, there were 408,700 smoking-related admissions to hospitals recorded in 2022-23, equating to 1,200 admissions each day. I pay tribute to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for ensuring that younger generations never take up this killer habit. But obesity is a complex challenge and the government has abandoned its efforts to bring it under control.

The consequences for the UK economy are devastating. Recent analysis from the Tony Blair Institute shows the annual cost of obesity is £63.1 billion for individuals, £19.2 billion for the NHS, and £15.6 billion for broader society. This financial burden is due to the loss of productivity caused by individuals being too unwell to work.

Exploring the potential of weight loss medications could significantly impact our approach to tackling obesity. However, policymakers hoping fat-jabs will be a quick fix should know that such solutions will unlikely eliminate the problem. It is crucial to analyse the role of appetite suppressants within a more comprehensive national strategy to address the complexities of the root causes of obesity.

Behavioural changes are, of course, vital to the conversation. Still, the idea that we can rely on individual responsibility or industry collaboration is empty rhetoric that rarely leads to real action. Time has proven that this optimistic hope that positive sentiment will break the junk food addiction is unrealistic when up against modern food technologies and advertising algorithms.

The answer is to attack obesity at its roots. While free markets play a notable role in creating prosperity, entrepreneurialism, and innovation, addictive products have poisoned the marketplace, deteriorated national health standards, and, in turn, are killing the economy.

We’ve had enough. We are choking to death on KitKat cereal and Dunkin’ Donuts. The government must step in, protect consumers, safeguard against excess, and incentivise the public to foster a healthy eating culture.

The UK once took pride in promoting healthy lifestyle choices, information campaigns, and accurate food labelling. We need a new set of solutions.

Education and support have a role to play. I support the campaign for free school meals and the promotion of healthy eating and pay tribute to Henry Dimbleby’s “Chefs in Schools” programme.

But it is not enough to blame children for making the wrong choices; we must change the environment where those choices are created. That is why it is right to consider tough measures that restrict the promotion and access to these addictive foods, particularly for children.

This means a tax on ultra-processed foods, a sugar tax, and bans on advertising that target younger generations – the measures in Boris Johnson’s obesity strategy that were never implemented.

If we deliver on these objectives and turn the tide against obesity, it will boost the economy. This will be borne out through a more productive current and future workforce, alleviating pressure on welfare and disability payments and contributing to a more robust and less strained treasury and healthcare system.

This is a battle worth fighting. Now is the time to raise standards and engage in the solutions to this crisis.


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