Weighing up the cost of Britain's obesity problem

Fat-busting drugs are not the solution, but there are plenty of other ways for Britons to get healthy

A festivalgoer eats fast food. Proposals have considered a ban on junk-food advertisements on television before 9pm AFP
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A friend – an environmental biologist – tells me an interesting story. He says that a co-worker at a top university tried to get a research grant to use insect species as predators to keep down the number of pests on farmers’ crops. He could not get a grant or sponsorship. But, my friend said, if his colleague were to apply to various chemical companies seeking sponsorship to create a new pesticide, obtaining cash would be much more likely.

The problem, my friend said, is that while using insects and other predators to control pests on crops may be ethically preferable, there is no obvious profit in it. Finding one bug to control another might be a scientific breakthrough but where’s the money for investors if profit is the end goal?

A twist in that argument came to mind amid a new row in Britain about obesity. Parliament’s obesity statistics from 2021 are astounding. Most English adults are fat. A quarter (26 per cent) are obese. A further 38 per cent are overweight but not obese – or not yet. Obesity means having a body mass index of 30 or above. BMI between 25 and 30 is classified as overweight. These statistics mean 64 per cent of British adults have a weight problem.

Governments must encourage better eating and exercise

It comes amid a political spat about junk food. The British government planned to place a ban on junk-food advertisements on television before 9pm when children might be watching. They also considered a ban on buy-one-get-one-free deals. Researchers believe these contribute to the overeating of nutrient-poor food. These initiatives have now been postponed until after the next general election, in part because food price inflation has been so high.

Health activists are extremely disappointed and they also want mandatory reporting from food companies on high levels of salt, sugar and fat many put in processed food. But now the British Health Secretary Steve Barclay – the health secretary! – is reported to be in favour of the postponement of any measures that he believes constitute a “nanny state” trying to change eating behaviour through legislation. Mr Barclay is instead said to be “placing his faith” in new weight-loss drugs.

This seems absurd. The obvious way to improve our national health is for governments to encourage better eating and exercise. That can be achieved through education, but also through increasing taxes on unhealthy products and the legally enforceable reporting of unhealthy levels of food additives.

Like chemical pesticides, better solutions are available than improving pharmaceutical companies’ profits by buying vast quantities of fat-busting drugs. Besides, in Britain, there are already taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, products that can cause significant health damage. Medical treatments for lung cancer and alcoholism are possible but not getting sick by avoiding the causes of sickness is always the best medicine. The same is true of obesity.

Wonder drugs may limit the damage but they cannot eliminate the core problem – unhealthy eating. There is some good news. Over the years, I have attended numerous conferences of world-leading businesses, financial institutions and investment groups. At every conference, someone mentions ESG – environmental, social and (corporate) management. That means successful big businesses think about carbon emissions, the mental and physical well-being of staff and customers, and an ethical approach to problems.

One British business leader memorably said to me that “my staff are my colleagues by day, but they are citizens by night. They care about making a better, healthier, cleaner world for their children to grow up in”. And so, while investors always look to make a profit from their investments, increasingly many refuse to invest in companies that carry possible reputational risks. For some, that includes tobacco and alcohol businesses, some energy companies and those making lethal military hardware.

In Britain, there is now a backlash from investors to the government’s health policy changes. A letter to The Times newspaper from a group of 25 investor companies insisted that they are supportive of well-designed legislation to improve healthy eating because voluntary measures have “consistently failed to work”.

The group says they represent more than 25 different investment firms with assets of more than £6 trillion ($7.67 trillion) and they are disappointed by government rollbacks of legislation on health policy. That’s because, according to the investors’ letter, “a lack of consistent data makes it hard for investors to evaluate a company’s effect on the environment and health, and to measure the risk associated with these exposures”.

This is hugely important. A supposedly pro-business Conservative government is publicly being rebuked by an undoubtedly pro-business group of powerful investors who fear – correctly – reputational and therefore financial risks if they invest in food production companies that contribute to ill-health.

The investors now join health charities and medical campaigners in their disappointment at a lack of consistent leadership from a government that appears to have pleased no one – except perhaps the manufacturers of anti-obesity drugs.

As for Britain becoming a “nanny state” – I’ve always believed that if you are rich enough to afford a nanny, you would probably want someone who insists that your children eat healthily. Maybe we need a few nannies to tell the British government to eat their vegetables or there will be no dessert.

Published: July 12, 2023, 7:00 AM