Says Leo McKinstry, columnist for the Daily Express and contributor to The Spectator and Daily Mail.
“I am writing this sitting at the desk of my home near Margate. The chair creaks under the weight of my 19 stone frame. In the waste bin are several chocolate bar wrappers and a couple of empty cans of Carlsberg Special Brew. To the side of my computer are a mug of sugared tea and a bowl of cereal with a dollop of double cream on top.
“Given all of this calorific excess, it is no surprise that I could be officially classified as a threat to public safety. In the eyes of the health lobby, I form part of the growing army of overweight and obese people who are putting the NHS under intolerable strain and undermining the morale of the nation.
“The apparent inexorable expansion in waistlines is held to be an ‘epidemic’, that is spiralling out of control. According to the Government’s own Foresight report of 2007, no less than half the population of Britain will be obese by 2050. Other studies have suggested that within 15 years, three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women will be overweight. Reflecting this mood of anxiety, the Royal College of General Practitioners called in September 2014 for a ‘state of emergency’ to be declared on obesity. In apocalyptic tones, the RCGP’s Head of Nutrition, Rachel Pryke, warned that ‘we are in danger of destroying the health of a whole generation of children’.
“To counter this problem, the health professionals have called for a nationwide action plan based on greater resources for weight management, more powerful awareness campaigns, sugar taxes, tighter food regulations, explicit labelling, health warnings, advertising bans on junk products and state subsidies for fruit and vegetables. ‘The Government must do more to restrict unhealthy food marketing and make healthy food more affordable,’ says Laura Webb of the UK Health Forum.
“But I think this interventionist approach is profoundly misguided. My own excessive weight is no one’s responsibility but my own. It is not the fault of the Government or Public Health England or the major food conglomerates. I am 19 stone because I eat too much unhealthy food, drink too much alcohol and take too little exercise. I know precisely what I should be doing to lose weight, but I fail to do so because of my own inertia, negligence and complacency. Why am I unable to change? For exactly the same reason that smokers or drinkers or drug users find it difficult to abandon their harmful lifestyles: the present pleasure they derive from their habits outweighs the potential health risks in the future.
Why am I unable to change? For exactly the same reason that smokers or drinkers or drug users find it difficult to abandon their harmful lifestyles.
“In the noisy demand for action on obesity, there is now a tendency to treat the overweight, not as autonomous citizens, but as passive, infantilised victims who need protection from the wicked food companies and constant support from the Government. Perhaps the most offensive illustration of this trend is the drive to have obesity classified as a disability, a move that, according to some campaigners, should be accompanied by making ‘appearance-based’ discrimination a hate crime like racial or homophobic bigotry. This is carrying institutionalised victimhood to a grotesque new level. It is absurd to pretend that obesity is a disability or an infectious disease or an addiction. Overweight people ultimately have control over their bodies. Decisions not to exercise or to eat excessively are personal, conscious choices.
“Moreover, there is a huge contradiction between wailing about obesity and at the same time bleating about prejudice against ‘fatties’. If obesity really is the public health nightmare that the professionals proclaim, then there should be a stigma attached to it, just as there is to alcoholism or drug addiction. But the reality is that the health campaigners have been indulging in far too much alarmism. Contrary to scaremongering, Britain is not gripped by a fat epidemic. The much vaunted Foresight report of 2007 was based on data from 1993 to 2004. Yet since then the numbers have been flat or even, among younger people, going down. When Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum produced a study in January 2014 that painted an even bleaker picture than the original Foresight report, he was challenged by the BBC for evidence to back his claim. ‘We have no actual statistics or figures,’ he admitted, but added that ‘a little exaggeration forces the message home’.
Contrary to scaremongering, Britain is not gripped by a fat epidemic.
“That sort of manipulation encapsulates the whole flawed approach of the public health lobby. The impact of obesity has been grossly overstated. Deaths from heart disease, for instance, continue their decline. Nor is there any evidence that expensive measures like weight management schemes have any real effect. Studies in the US show that less than five percent of people who participate in non-surgical weight reduction programmes will maintain any significant loss over a long period of time. Just as ineffective are counselling initiatives like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which has been described by the distinguished psychologist Oliver James as ‘a form of mental hygiene. However filthy the kitchen floor of your mind, CBT soon covers it with a thin veneer of ‘positive polish’.
“Some of the anti-obesity nannying could slide into a form of state authoritarianism. This has certainly happened with the anti-smoking initiatives, which now include brutal taxes, hectoring propaganda and extreme invasions of privacy, as highlighted by the ban on motorists even smoking in their own cars. We can now see intimidations of the same outlook in the calls for heavy sugar taxes, calorie counters on menus, inspections of school pupils’ lunch boxes and compulsory weight checks for all children and adults. As the great Irish writer C. S. Lewis once put it: ‘Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.’
“As with smoking, the public health lobby justifies this destruction of individual liberty and disdain for personal responsibility by reference to the costs of obesity to the NHS. The annual bill for diet-related ill-health, we are told, now reaches almost £6 billion a year. But ts kind of thinking is both morally and economically ill-conceived,. If it is true that obesity is really a threat to longer life expectancy – children alive today will have shorter lives than their parents is one of the favourite mantras of healthy eating advocate Jamie Oliver – then the NHS will save a fortune because by far the biggest burden on the health service is the treatment of the elderly, with over half the NHS budget spent on patients over the age of 65. Therefore in purely actuarial terms, premature mortality would actually save the state money.
“That again shows the flimsiness of the intellectual foundations underpinning the anti-obesity campaign. In the end, we all have to take charge of our own destinies.”