Survival of the fattest

Image of Robert Shrimsley

Run, run; the fatness is upon us. According to a Tory peer and former surgeon, the rise in obesity is “the worst epidemic to affect this country for 100 years”. After worrying about the so-called squeezed middle it’s time to panic about the middle that has not been squeezed enough. With the assuredness of a beat poet, Lord McColl added it is “killing millions and costing billions”. Technically, an epidemic need not be contagious, so you probably can’t catch fat. This will be a relief to businesses, which are hard-pressed enough without facing litigation from staff who have been exposed to overweight colleagues.

Lord McColl’s alarm call is part of a growing clamour for a fresh jihad against the generously proportioned. European nations are toying with various versions of fat taxes on unhealthy foods. It is questionable whether this will work; after all, we are talking about an addiction here. The danger is surely that we create a new underclass forced into a life of crime to raise the money they need to feed their habit. It will end with police concluding that a spike in crime can be directly attributed to the increase in the cost of a KFC Bargain Bucket. Gangs of Jaffa Cake addicts will roam the streets, high on the smashing orangey bit in the middle, looking for victims.

Lord McColl is not the first to sound this alarm. Four years ago Alan Johnson, the then health secretary, likened the problem to climate change. (At the time I thought he should follow Al Gore’s example and quit to concentrate on his movie, An Inconvenient Burger.) However, he foundered on whether the fault lay with the individuals, or with society for pushing fatty food at them. Clearly it is easier to feel better about yourself if society is making you eat that HobNob.

The attraction for ministers of a new war on flab is that it offers something to do when resources are tight. Government is by nature interventionist, so a cheap initiative against the obese has attractions. It comes around every few years, always beginning with some minister telling us to eat more fruit. A national campaign is likely; a fatty foods hotline perhaps, through which teams of specialists can talk tearful scoffers down from eating those Pringles. “Step away from the counter son, you’re only hurting yourself.” We can expect a creative new advert similar to the Aids iceberg – the obesity meringue, perhaps. Meanwhile, David Cameron’s behavioural psychology “nudge unit” can devise subliminal messages such as “Time to Tighten our Belts” to display in supermarkets.

But all this will simply show how weak-willed the government is in tackling this “epidemic”. For overeating is based upon a series of marginal decisions which boil down to “How much do I want these chips?” Until the wish to be thinner outweighs the desire for chips, the chips will win. (I speak from experience here.) So if ministers are serious, they will need to consider more draconian disincentives to munch. The smoking ban offers a model. The overweight could be forced to eat outside at restaurants and be banned from offices. If taxation is to be the weapon, it’s no good simply taxing the food. That only punishes people when they eat; it doesn’t punish them the rest of the time. It ignores the aesthetic cost of seeing fat people in the street or other adverse effects, such as the way they spill over on to neighbouring seats on trains. Ministers might prefer simply taxing fat people directly, on a sliding scale based on regular check-ups to avoid crash diets at the start of the financial year.

But we should be wary of a backlash. As someone who is often mistaken for being overweight, I’ve no wish to see vigilantes in the streets, targeting terrified individuals for impromptu renditions of “Who ate all the pies?”

And there is a political cost – after all there are a lot of large voters out there. But if ministers are actually serious, only such truly vindictive measures will work. Anything less and we may conclude that they are simply dipping their skinny toes into the river of public posturing.

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