The Whitehouse Consultancy

As many of us return from short summer breaks, we notice the additional midriff folds: too much pasta in Italy, too many tapas in Spain, far too much wine wherever, and way too many fish and chips in Skegness in England. We are living proof of the truth of the warning that it is all too easy to pile on the pounds and pile on the burdens of the National Health Service as it groans under the weight of obesity, diabetes and their co-morbidities. The public health tsunami that is upon us is now widely recognised and the financial costs to the public health services are now accepted as unsustainable unless radical change is delivered.

But we should not despair, we do have a chance to drive forward across the European Union a public health improvement agenda that can be delivered immediately, at almost no cost to the taxpayer and with no need for legislation.

In January this year, National Obesity Awareness Week, managed by my agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy, secured extensive publicity in the UK’s national print and broadcast media, promoting awareness of the scale of the problem; and it rightly had Ministerial support, was welcomed to 10 Downing Street (the formal residence of the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron) for a Reception hosted by Samantha Cameron, and saw substantial investment in school activity resources funded by Disney through a major national children’s healthy eating competition.

But the event, to be repeated in January 2015, also highlighted a number of practical steps that can be taken to address this crisis in the face of which we are not impotent. Yes, the UK Government’s existing “Change 4 Life” programme and its “Responsibility Deal” have made some progress, but more needs to be done.

First, Ministers and health policy influencers should be giving the clear and straightforward public health message that if consumers wish to consume a sweetened beverage they should consider a low calorie version. This is the single, most effective step that could be taken to reduce obesity over the coming years by reducing the consumption of hundreds of millions of calories. It also has the advantage of being consistent with the direction of consumer choice in beverages, a sector in which several of the main brands now find their low calorie version outsell their original sugar-sweetened products.

Secondly, under the current arrangements, general practitioners in England and Wales are financially incentivised to list and count the number of obese patients on their lists, but they have no subsequent financial incentive then to point them in the direction of some means of addressing their problem. Government Ministers should be heeding the campaign run by the expert, practitioner-led National Obesity Forum to reform the Quality and Outcomes Framework, or to find some other means to shift the incentives from listing, to acting, even if that action is only to give dietary advice and issue a list of third sector and commercial providers of weight loss support in the local area. That action should be replicated across Europe.

Thirdly, consistent with the above point about signposting to providers of support, Directors of Public Health all around the European Union should be encouraged to compile and publish (online if it’s all they can afford) a directory of effective weight loss support organisations in their area which could be promoted through pharmacies, libraries, sports centres, community health facilities and all local authority public contact points.

Fourthly, work with organisations such as freight hauliers, the lifestyle of whose employees tends to life-threatening obesity. Being seriously overweight contributes significantly to sleep apnoea, and the road safety consequences of tired HGV drivers are so obvious, and are sadly so frequently reported, as to hardly merit repeating. That reducing serious road traffic accidents will benefit the industry, the innocent road user and the public purse is beyond challenge to say nothing of the improvements to the quality of life of truckers.

Of course, there are vested commercial, professional and political interests hampering and hindering the taking of all the above steps and many others as well; but it’s time that Ministers stopped talking about obesity and started instead using the public health levers that remain under their control to deliver action and results. And the current campaign for ever more bariatric surgery is simply a counsel of despair. Surgery should be the last resort, after all other approaches have failed.

Above all, the obese should not be demonised or stigmatised. The seriously over-weight no more eat because they are hungry than alcoholics drink because they are thirsty.

We need a narrative for the people of Europe that describes progress, not just concern, in this vital area of public health.

A version of this article first appeared on the Conservative Home website.

The Whitehouse Consultancy are Europe’s leading public affairs and communications agency for the food and health sector.

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