Last week sometime (can't be arsed checking when) a 'slightly overweight' shadow (misnomer if ever there was one as he might not be a shadow of his former self judging by the mischievous picture some people used to accompany their stories) cabinet member announced a new deal for fat people.
No! Stop slavvering, its not a buy-one-get-one-free deal its more a 'bog off!' deal.
The deal is 'you're fat, you deal with it!' or a 'responsibilty deal' as the Conservatives are couching (Couch? I must sit on it for a considerable number of hours while watching Jeremy Kyle!) it.
This is the second time of late the Tories have assaulted people of broad girth/incorrect BMI.
And once again they engaged in a disingenuous double-helpings-speak. In the first instance it was David Cameron, whistling to the PC-gone-mad brigade, who bemoaned the lack of straight -talking when it comes to social ills -such as 'obesity'- and promised some common-sense plain-speaking. So what does too-much-oil-Dave substitute for the quite ridiculous government euphemism (his tone not mine) 'at risk of obesity'? He uses the killer vernacular 'people who eat too much and take too little exercise' -are you thinking what we're thinking- fat. Actually, Cameron's phrase does have the benefit of encapsulating at least a semi- diagnostic approach but is a rather diet version as it fails to ask why. The buck conveniently stops at the individual and absolves other factors and actors influencing the great global weight gain.
Asking why is not an excuse but helps to find a more coherent and effective policy response.
In the second instance it was Andrew Lansley who said that the answer to the obesity problem was categorically not lecturing people.
In a lecture he said that there were no excuses for being fat. Not the confusing labelling the industry prefers nor the crap manufacturers put in your food you would need a chemistry degree or a diploma in statistics to avoid. No excuses, no nannying, no lecturing was his lecture's theme.
No nannying, except, that is, for the Mary Poppins variety. I'm sure she would be mortified to discover that she wasn't a proper nanny.
The Conservatives surely exposed the fluffiness of their own thinking when Lansley suggested we needed more of a Mary Poppins than a Miss Trunchball approach. Well, Mary Poppins may seem a little softer on the surface but she did still advocate spoonfuls of sugar even if she only sang metaphorically about it rather than force-fed it. She did however point up the comfort value of food, a bit like many advertisers do so if he's so concerned about 'messages' a reference to Mary Poppins is probably not a great idea. They ought to be a bit more careful with their popular cultural references when trying to seem in touch.
In fact, its not clear that the Conservatives' medicine differs from what they characterise as the Trunchball method except in their own spin. Lansley proposes a number of state interventions such as campaigns, regulations and structural changes although there's also plenty of goodies for business involvement for example 'A combined business and Government social responsibility campaign to promote healthy living'. Now we are to be lectured by the very people who want to sell us more and more crap in the first place!
Lansley seems to suggest that there's somehow a societal and governmental environment which says its ok -or provides excuses- to be fat and only the plain-speaking Tories have the stomach to say its not. Well as many commenters and commentators have noted that on the contrary playground bullying, size zero, media images and celebrity culture sends out quite enough messages about not being fat. And there are government measures aplenty which are bearing fruit.
He also misrepresents the Foresight Report on Obesity in order to rubbish government action on the issue.
The report's well rounded approach does not provide an 'excuse' as Lansley claims.
It states that:
"Taken together, the evidence presented in this report provides a powerful challenge to the commonly held assumption that an individual’s weight is a matter solely of personal responsibility or indeed individual choice..."
".....people do not ‘choose’ to be obese. Their obesity is mainly driven by a range of factors beyond their immediate control that in practice constrain individual choice. The commercial success of the weight loss market is testament to the belief invested in the power of individuals to control their own weight. However, the concomitant rise in obesity and the frequent weight regain common in those who have dieted successfully is evidence of the failure of a response built solely on this approach. Strategies based on personal motivation and individual responsibility alone do not provide an adequate response to the obesity problem...."
However it goes on to say:
"To be successful, a comprehensive long-term strategy to tackle obesity must act in two complementary ways to achieve and maintain a healthy population weight distribution. First, an environment that supports and facilitates healthy choices must be actively established and maintained. Second, individuals need to be encouraged to desire, seek and make different choices, recognising that they make decisions as part of families or groups and that individual behaviour is ‘cued’ by the behaviours of others, including organisational behaviours and other wider influences."
There is no shortage in the report of references to individual behaviours and the need for change. But it promotes a holistic approach and the evidence is that focusing too heavily on parts of the problem such as individuals will not bring about the scale of change necessary. It also looks at the efficacy of joining up policies such as increasing levels of physical activity in tackling climate change will also reduce obesity.
Exhorting individuals to take greater responsibility without tackling the environment in which people live and make 'choices' is simply like constantly placing a large chocolate cake (or whatever their favourite tipple) in front of someone on a diet. The odds and shelves are often stacked against us. More opportunities for exercise for example built into the environment means that the cake is burned off.
Sheffield Hallam University was commissioned to analyse the implications of the report for local government and make recommendations for action. It tackles some of the myths around obesity (and BMI measures) and also has a good section on why stigmatising obesity is no recipe for resolving it.
Cameron's and Lansley's focus on individuals' personal failings is counterproductive.
For anyone with the time and the inclination reading one or both reports is recommended rather than relying on second hand accounts of them.
Focusing on individual's responsibilities and the use of the voluntary and private sector ties in with the traditional Conservative project of a free market/small state and is no different to what was offered when the Tories were last in office. The Lib Dems health spokesman said:
"He lectures people about their responsibility. He blames people for being overweight and says they lack self-discipline and self-esteem. Yet when it comes to junk food he's much more sensitive about the problem of 'stigmatising' it."
Mr Pushing the Boundary also notes some sexism in Lansley's speech and looks at the gap between the Tories project to decontaminate their brand and the reality.
Tom P looks at the Tory proposal to scrap the government's more helpful, consumer-friendly (I should know, I do alot of shopping!) preferred 'traffic lights' food labelling system in favour of the one industry has been lobbying for.
This doesn't surprise me at all. The Tories recently 'talked out' a private members bill to ban TV advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar before the 9pm watershed when children would be watching and to try to tackle some of the other forms of marketing less healthy options to kids. See the evidence provided by consumer organisation 'Which?' on this.
Much more poking around the issue with a fork from sceptisle which also looks at what the government is already doing.
Hopi Sen looks at the claims on spending and health made by Lansley
No-one disagrees that people have responsibilities but how the Tories' are using their agenda around 'personal responsibility', especially having a second go at fat people, is below the belt. They are trying to still do nasty (its what some of their supporters like them for), but nicer. Trying to dress their traditional attacks up as nudges and the like to make them appear softer they are increasingly coming to taste like one of those weirdly incongruous ice-cream flavours. Bovril and custard ice cream anyone?