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National fat dilemma

Gillian Hargreaves
Gillian Hargreaves
The Politics Show

Fat lady in jeans
Will this growing problem expand too much?

It's hard to argue with the figures. We're getting fatter as a nation - in England alone, nearly a quarter of men and women are now obese, and the statistics for children are even more worrying.

The question is, what, if anything, should the government do about it? This week, we've taken the unusual step of unleashing two reporters on the same subject.

Here, read Gillian Hargreaves making the case for fighting fat and here, you can click through to read Max Cotton flying the flag for individual responsibility and freedom.

We have a crisis in Britain - entirely of our making.

The secretary of State for Health says it is as pressing a concern as climate change.

What is it? Well, the nation's waistlines are growing. And growing at a frightening rate.

According to the government, if we follow current trends, nearly 60% of the population in England will be obese by 2050.

Almost two out of every three adults will be defined as severely overweight.

You might wonder why any of this should matter.

After all, a little bit of chub is a lot less serious a public health issue than Cholera or TB.

Check your body mass index


Growing costs

But according to the government's own estimates, fat costs us 4.2bn a year, directly, and weight problems cost the broader UK economy in the region of 16bn, indirectly - for instance, in days off, sick.

And then, there are the quirky consequences of a nation growing fat.

It has been reported that Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service might start charging to lift morbidly obese people who are so incapacitated, they cannot move their own bodies.



In January 2008, the government published a paper called: "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives: a cross government strategy for England", and in a similar document for Scotland, governments have set out how they are going to tackle the growing obesity epidemic.

First, they are planning to target those places where obesity is becoming a chronic problem.

The fattest places in Britain include Hull, Blackburn, Merthyr Tydfil, Stoke on Trent, Middlesbrough and Birmingham.

Fat fighting

Boy eating burger
A poor diet can lead to gross problems

There are going to be new measures to encourage children to cycle to school, and a rather vague sounding plan to increase physical activity up to the 2012 Olympics.

There are proposals to plan towns in better ways to encourage people to walk more - there is even a proposal to encourage local authorities to ban fast food outlets near schools.

And finally, the government plans to finalise a healthy "Food Code of Good Practice" in partnership with the food and drink industry - a clear warning system about what is good and bad food.

Tougher measures

But is this all enough? Perhaps the government should go further?

Maybe they should take on the food lobby and force through legislation to make food that is low in salt and saturated fat.

Perhaps certain foods like hydrogenated vegetable oil should be banned - some supermarkets are already getting rid of it from their packaged meals.

But so far, there is no legal requirement to ban it.

The former Health secretary, Pat Hewitt, introduced a scheme to allow some people to attend gyms on the NHS, but one way to encourage more physical exercise would be to build bigger, cheaper sports facilities, or subsidise Britain's expensive gyms - and restrict car use to encourage cycling and walking.

Sometimes the government's role is to protect us - to act as guardian to the citizen.

When it comes to obesity, the government should step beyond treating fat solely as a public health issue - and start to pro-actively intervene in all our lives.

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