Page last updated at 00:27 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 01:27 UK

Obesity 'equal to terror threat'

Overweight man
Obesity is predicted to continue rising

The threat to Britain and the NHS from rising obesity is as grave as that posed by terrorism, a top expert says.

Durham University public health expert Professor David Hunter, who also acts as a government adviser, said ministers should be taking "bold action" now.

He said this could include compelling manufacturers to improve the salt, fat and sugar content of their products.

The Department of Health said it was making progress in disease prevention in a number of areas.

Professor Hunter said that governments since the 1970s, including the present Labour government, had "tinkered around the edges" of the rising problem of obesity.

The threat to our future health is just as significant as the current security threat
Professor David Hunter
Durham University

He said it was possible that the disease it caused could overwhelm the NHS, with some predicting a doubling of the number of people with type II diabetes by 2025.

The solution, he said, was a more direct approach, with less public consultation.

"They have been talking about it for four decades, but that never seems to be enough," he said.

"The government was quick to move for things like ID cards or 42-day detention without trial - now it needs to show similar leadership in public health.

"The threat to our future health is just as significant as the current security threat."

While many disease prevention initiatives were having some impact, he said, this was on a "piddling" scale.

He said that current work between the Food Standards Agency and food manufacturers and suppliers could go further.

"Lots of the initiatives are under a voluntary agreement - but it has just come to the point where things like these are simply not working."

He said that bigger warning labels, changes in the taxation of "unhealthy" foods, and even the use of compulsory regulations to force manufacturers to cut levels of salt, sugar and fat in their foods could be employed.

'Terror by targets'

Professor Hunter, who has written a book called "The Health Debate" about the challenges facing the NHS as it hits its 60th anniversary, also criticised targets as a tool for NHS reform, describing it as a "terror-by-targets" culture which damaged staff morale.

The recent review by Lord Darzi placed emphasis on the prevention of disease as a priority for the NHS, as did the Public Health White Paper in 2004.

A spokesman for the Department of Health pointed to the decision to fluoridate drinking water to improve oral health, and the introduction of smoking bans, as signs that it was serious about this.

"Lord Darzi's recent review envisioned an NHS that is as good at preventing ill health as it is at treating the sick," he said.

"We are tackling obesity through awareness campaigns and action in schools. Our alcohol and sexual health campaigns encourage responsible drinking and safer sex."

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said that the voluntary approach currently used with the food industry had been successful.

She said: "We set voluntary targets for salt and have seen considerable reductions in a range of food.

"Legislation is one option if industry doesn't respond to our voluntary approach, but so far it has proven unnecessary."


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