Lifestyle

Sunday 21 September 2014

A fat lot of good we're doing in war on obesity

Best-selling food writer Trevor White last week delivered a submission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. This is what he said.

MISTER Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for this opportunity.

In the Eighties my mother owned a restaurant called Whites on the Green; some of you are old enough to remember it. I was the little boy hiding under the coat rack. Many years later I published The Dubliner 100 Best Restaurants, which was the best-selling restaurant guide in this country, and more recently I have written about the politics of food production.

But I am not here in any professional capacity. I am here as the father of two small boys. I'm worried about bringing my boys up in a country with one of the world's highest rates of childhood obesity. A country, that is, in which an entire generation of children are in danger of dying younger than their parents.

My views on childhood obesity will strike some of you as extreme. You see, I believe that one day the cost of treating the diseases of obesity will become so great that people will wonder why we didn't act sooner. The idea that dangerous food was once advertised directly to children will be properly embarrassing. But childhood obesity is not yet a major political issue in Ireland, which is why industry still controls the terms of the debate and why my views are still regarded as eccentric.

In that regard I have read the submissions to this committee with great interest. Time and again you have been told how complex the issue of childhood obesity is, and you've heard a lot of drivel about product reformulation and partnerships with industry. But most of all you have heard how consumers must change their behaviour. By 2030, more than half of Irish adults will be obese, yet right now Big Food is engaged in a very expensive campaign to blame the public for the problem.

I find it truly remarkable that obesity is still framed as an issue of personal responsibility. This line seems plausible only because it's so familiar. We tolerated the same argument from Big Tobacco for decades, and it is demonstrably rubbish. After all, the incidence of obesity increases year after year. Were we any less responsible in 2011 than we were in 2010? Of course not. Blaming the victim is just an excuse to let industry off the hook.

So let us speak frankly about this public health crisis. Unlike many of the people who you've met, I believe it is not nearly as complex as they suggest. Broadly speaking, there are three options.

Option one: take the advice of industry. Tighten those belts. Build more gyms. Jog. Cycle to work. All laudable goals in their way. So yes, there is room for the personal responsibility argument, as old and lazy as it is. After all, no one seriously proposes that people should exercise less. Stretching those legs is an obvious good. But so is full employment, peace in our time, the pot at the end of the rainbow. As a strategy for survival it is simply ineffective.

Yet this is all you ever hear. The same weary mantras. And when any form of government intervention is mentioned, industry throws up its arms and says: "It won't work and it'll cost jobs." Let's just unpack that, shall we? If a junk food tax won't work, why will it cost jobs? The fact that we are only tinkering around the edges with self-regulation and something as disingenuous as an advertising watershed speaks to the success of industry – and our failure.

If you want a tangible example of the insincerity that I am referring to, just consider the name of an industry lobby group that made a submission to you last week: the Nutrition and Health Foundation. This movement sounds so cuddly and warm and uncontroversial, until you begin to look a little deeper. The Nutrition and Health Foundation claims to put the interests of consumers before everything else. Yet it cares so much about Irish consumers that it won't even let them join. I know this because I tried to join; after seven months of equivocation my application was flatly rejected.

Option two. Ask industry to be nicer. Reveal the damage they're doing to our children. Beg them to go easy on the fat, salt and sugar. Sadly, this policy has proved futile for nearly 30 years. In that time the incidence of childhood obesity has shot up, alongside high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and certain forms of cancer. Why?

Quite simply, because corporations put short-term profit before all other concerns.

Third option: you can intervene. That is, you can convince the Minister for Health to introduce the legislation that will tackle this problem, and thus secure a place in history. Because this is not just an Irish issue; this is a problem throughout the developed world. There is a profound need for leadership on obesity, and your acts could have wide-reaching implications. I'm thinking now of your collective lead on the tax on plastic bags, or the ban on smoking in the workplace. That's the kind of influence you could have on obesity.

In that regard it's heartening to note that you have met with some good people. I particularly applaud the recommendations of the Irish Heart Foundation for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax that would increase the price of such products. The tax should be at least 20 per cent, and certainly not the 10 per cent that was mooted in the media on Tuesday.

I also believe the Irish Heart Foundation is being quite moderate in asking for the advertising ban to be in place from 6am to 9pm. I would go further. Like Deputy Robert Dowds, I think we must ban the advertising of all unhealthy foods to children.

I note, too, this week's decision by the Danish government to abandon taxes aimed at curbing obesity. The lesson from that experience seems to be that it's much easier to tax specific foods, say a tax on sugary sodas, than to tax at the nutrient level like a fat tax or a sugar tax. I'm thinking of softer interventions such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on large sugary drinks.

If this were a truly civilised society, our children would never be exposed to advertisements for products that will make them sick. There would be a traffic light coding system on the front of packs; we'd make schools healthier, more protected environments; we'd put a levy on sugar-sweetened drinks; and, yes, we would also promote physical activity.

Supermarkets would be re-designed to give less prominence to foods high in fat, sugar and salt; what we call euphemistically the obesogenic environment. And then there is the marketing in the retail sector, outdoors and on the internet. This marketing treats children with contempt by cynically exploiting their intellectual immaturity. In moral terms it is frankly despicable.

This committee now has an opportunity to exercise the sort of leadership that separates statesmen from politicians. In doing so you will earn the gratitude of Irish men and women who are only now beginning their lives; and of children as yet unborn.

But I must say, with all due respect, that if you, our politicians, continue to fail to address this crisis – or if your proposals are shelved or watered down due to the demands of industry – the opposite is true. History will judge you most unkindly.

On behalf of my boys, and of children throughout this country, please – show the world what leadership really looks like. Thank you.

Sunday Independent

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