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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 February, 2004, 00:06 GMT
Fighting fat the Finnish way

By Karen Allen
BBC Health Correspondent

MPs from the health select committee are to visit Finland to investigate what lessons can be learnt about tackling obesity.

Their long awaited report into what should be done about our widening waistlines, is due to be published around Easter.

But as consumer groups call for tighter controls on the food industry, MPs are considering whether Finland's softly softly approach could work here.

Fin exercising
Exercise has played a key part in the Finnish health success

Finland's problem in the 70's was coronary heart disease rather than obesity.

It had the highest rate of deaths from heart problems in the world, largely due to a flourishing dairy sector which played a big part in the Finnish diet.

But as a result of an assertive public education campaign - to promote exercise and healthy diet - it has escaped the escalating obesity rates now emerging in Britain.

In the 80's Finland's obesity rate was twice as high as ours - but in the years that followed, as Britain's obesity rate soared, our Nordic neighbours more or less contained the problem, experiencing only modest rises.

For instance, 19% of women in Finland are now classed as clinically obese.

In the UK the figure is closer to 26% and our children are getting fatter too.

Government campaigns

So how have they done it?

Largely through assertive government campaigns and co-operation from the domestic food industry.

In this country, the accusation of presiding over a 'nanny state' is the worst form of insult that can be thrown at a politician.

But in Finland politicians seem to smart less at such allegations.

In Finland school kids are weighed annually and the results recorded in their end of year reports. If there's a problem the doctor is called in.

Each child receives a free school lunch which must comprise one third of their calorie intake, and exercise plays a prominent part in the school day.

The Finns eat more low-fat cheese

It sounds like a perfect world, but it's not. Just like Britain the presence of vending machines in school worries parents.

But in Finland many sell water, and sugary drinks are banned from both classroom and dining hall.

And importantly this culture of healthy eating seems to continue into the home.

Finnish food firms have been forced to adapt too.

Not through fiscal measures or bans on advertising, but as a result of consumer demand, informed by decades of public health campaigns.

Some 30% of cheese on supermarket shelves is now low fat in Finland - compared to around just 10% in the UK.

The products are more expensive, but it seems the Finnish public is prepared to pay, and the social economic divisions that many argue defines British people's shape, are less of an issue here.

'Scientific minds'

So is it a model that could be exported to the UK? It's hard to say - Finland is a small country with a population of just five million.

It has a high standard of education and, as a marketing manager of the Finnish dairy firm Valio put it, "they have scientific minds" so the mechanics and medical benefits of keeping trim are well understood.

That might be a vast simplification - but it is about values: education and trust.

Unlike Britain Finland doesn't have the 'baggage' of major health scares like CJD.

As a result ministers and their medical advisors enjoy a greater degree of trust, so getting the public to respond to campaigns appears a more straightforward process.

Finland is also a homogeneous society, for many years isolated from the influences of the fast food world, so it has been a market that is been easier to control.

With the growing presence of multi-national corporations in Finland the hard part will be sustaining those gains.

Bodies like the World Health Organisation are signalling a global obesity epidemic ahead - already 300 million people world wide are dangerously overweight.

But if there is one lesson to be learnt from the Finnish experience, it is that results in decades to come require education, education, education now.

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