Blair's junk food tax isn't the answer to our obesity epidemic

Dr MAX PEMBERTON: Blair’s junk food tax isn’t the answer to our obesity epidemic

  • Obesity must be seen as part of a complex socio-economic problem
  • READ MORE: Why NHS SHOULDN’T fund fat jabs for millions

How can we tackle the obesity epidemic and improve the health of the nation? It is one of the most pressing problems we face. 

Now, Tony Blair has entered the debate about junk food and those on the breadline, suggesting new sugar and salt taxes to tackle obesity.

We know that poverty is linked to excess weight, illness and disease, so it’s a fair assumption to make — people reach for junk food because it’s calorie-dense and cheap, and this, in turn, affects their health.

There’s clear health disparity in areas of poverty compared to wealthier regions. men in the richest areas of the country live on average nearly ten years longer than those in the poorest, and for women it’s an average of eight years.

That’s a national scandal.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has suggested new sugar and salt taxes to tackle obesity

But it’s a common misconception that poorer people eat junk food because they can’t afford healthy food. The evidence shows this isn’t the case.

A takeaway, for example, often costs far more than a meal whizzed up from scratch.

Cooking your own meals is often the cheapest — as well as the healthiest and most nutritious — way to eat.

So, if we want to understand why disadvantaged people tend to eat unhealthy food, we have to look at more than straightforward economics.

There are lots of factors at play, and I worry that we have oversimplified the issue.

Firstly, while we love to demonise food groups, by focusing purely on sugar and salt we are ignoring the other factors contributing to the obesity epidemic and overall ill-health.

We are failing to acknowledge the role an increasingly sedentary lifestyle has on people’s weight, for example.

But more than that, we’re not really tackling why some people are overweight. Yes, it’s because they are consuming more calories than they are expending. 

Research shows that underprivileged families consider giving their children takeaways as a way of treating them

But it’s clearly more than that — we are misunderstanding the relationship that some people have with food.

Research shows that underprivileged families consider giving their children takeaways and junk food that they know they enjoy as a way of treating them. 

When you have little money, a bag of chips or a takeaway pizza is a quick, easy and relatively accessible way of indulging your children.

Yes, it’s more expensive than cooking for them, but it’s cheaper than a holiday or a games console. It’s a bit of luxury when there isn’t much; a way of showing love.

In contrast, if you are a comfortable, middle-class family then you can give your children healthy food as a way of demonstrating love, because you can also treat them to a fancy trip, or take them to the zoo or buy them the latest gadget.

Penalising disadvantaged families by forcing them to pay more for junk food isn’t really going to address this, is it?

But while I don’t think we should be hitting the poor in the pocket when it comes to the occasional treat, I do think we should be trying to ensure that takeaways remain just that.

One factor in the crisis is the proliferation of takeaway shops, turning deprived parts of the UK into ‘food swamps’ where residents don’t have easy access to fresh food.

Dr Max believes we won’t be able to fix the obesity issue until we start seeing it as part of a complex socio-economic problem

I’ve seen this for myself.

A few years ago, I was working for a drug addiction clinic in a very deprived area of London.

In an attempt to treat our patients holistically, we started a cookery course. 

Several weeks in, one of the patients commented on how this was all very nice, but they couldn’t actually get any of the vegetables for the recipes we were teaching them.

I didn’t believe them, so went out and looked around the local shops. I was shocked to find there were five takeaways on the estate — and not a single shop selling vegetables. 

Yes, fresh fruit and vegetables are actually cheaper than fast food, but only if you can get your hands on them. 

And it’s all very well insisting people start cooking at home, but some of my patients didn’t even have access to a proper kitchen.

If you live in a hostel or temporary accommodation, you might have to share cooking facilities with other families, and this can be stressful and complicated.

That’s not even taking into consideration that since the decline in cooking lessons in schools, there’s a whole generation who don’t even know how to boil an egg, let alone make a full meal.

Until we start seeing the obesity issue as part of a complex socio-economic problem, we can’t hope to fix it.

As a start, I’d suggest that councils limit the amount of takeaway outlets in an area and give subsidised rates to shops selling fruit and vegetables.

At least that way there would actually be fresh food for people to buy if they chose to, and fewer takeaways to tempt them.

GPs gave out a record one million prescriptions for antidepressants to children in 2022. The rise is blamed on the pandemic and lockdown. 

Teachers also said some younger children returned to school unable to use cutlery and wearing nappies. We must consider these things for future pandemic planning. 

Well done for saying it, Kate

Kate Garraway challenged Health Secretary Steve Barclay about issues with the health service and social care live on air

Kate Garraway took Health Secretary Steve Barclay to task live on air last week about the issues with the health service and social care. 

Kate’s not the only one who would like to have a word with Steve. I confess I’m feeling a little desperate when it comes to the NHS. And I know I’m not alone. 

If something isn’t done quickly, I wonder how long the NHS will survive. 

The nail in the coffin could well be the doctors’ strikes. This week consultants will be on strike Tuesday and Wednesday, and juniors out on Wednesday to Friday. So on Wednesday there will only be limited cover. 

The talks appear to be in deadlock, with officials warning doctors will not be offered more cash and the walkouts will swallow the £200 million being given against the wider crisis. 

The NHS is ailing, but is the sickness terminal? I hope not. 


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