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Reformer May fails obesity test

Theresa May responded to the collapse of BHS last month by vowing to reform capitalism. It’s taken a little over three weeks to discover what the new Prime Minister meant by ‘reform’ was to protect the interests of private enterprises even more forcibly against those of the public and wider society.

The Government’s new childhood obesity strategy makes a mockery of May’s pledge, contained in her first speech as PM, that “when we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful, but you”.

The strategy runs to a pitiful 13 pages but still manages to be packed full of contradictions, muddled thinking and concessions to vested industry interests.

It acknowledges the economic costs of obesity are great - noting that money spent treating obesity is higher than is spent on the police, fire service and judicial system combined - yet concludes by saying the approach to childhood obesity will need to respect economic realities. What economic realities are these that command such deference? A short term hit to the profits of manufacturers of unhealthy foods that will more than likely be compensated for by a boost in the sales of healthier alternatives? The unsubstantiated threat of several thousand job losses (a scenario rejected by economists)? A marginal reduction in TV advertising revenue? Do these ‘realities’ really trump the far reaching social costs of childhood obesity, not to mention the £5.1bn the NHS in England spent on treating debilitating obesity-related illnesses last year?

The level of detailed analysis of the causes and consequences of obesity is so weak as to make it laughable. Even an arch capitalist, with economics as their only policy lens, would surely recognise that a generation of children suffering obesity-related diseases does not a future productive workforce make.

In caving in to the demands of lobbyists, the Government has made clear that the short-term profits of a handful of food manufacturers are more important than the long-term health of the nation’s youth.

The inconsistencies stack up throughout the report. The Government acknowledges that obesity is a complex problem with many drivers including our behaviour, environment, genetics and culture, but does little to address any of these drivers in a tangible way. Instead, it focuses on voluntary measures, which have consistently failed to deliver meaningful results and are notoriously difficult to monitor and evaluate, and ascribes to the flawed logic that food information and encouragement to exercise more are routes out of a crisis which has its roots in social deprivation, health inequality and a food system that makes eating poorly easier, and cheaper, than eating well.

Not only does the Government ignore the advice of its own health agency to bring in new rules curbing advertising and promotions, it falls short of the 50% mandatory sugar reformulation target the British Retail Consortium said supermarkets would be prepared to accept. Indeed, it speaks volumes for the level of ambition in the strategy that a major food business such as Sainsbury’s says it doesn’t go far enough.

The Government says the strategy represents the start of a conversation on obesity. It doesn't. The conversation has been going on for decades. Government obesity strategies have had more sequels than the Police Academy movies and share the same trait of getting progressively worse.

Former public health minister, Jane Ellison, said, with an admirably straight face on national television that this is a world leading obesity strategy. On the contrary, it is a collection of flawed ideas, excuses and clichés that have been packaged as an ambitious overarching plan.

Government is there to protect its citizens when the market works against their best interests. In taking the side of capital versus people Theresa May has already blown her cover as a reformist. Future governments will be left to pick up the pieces.

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