The rising obesity epidemic in the West has made headlines again after the world’s leading medical journal The Lancet recently ran a special series on the topic.
According to international medical experts, governments around the world must take responsibility for the obesity pandemic and urgently use direct legislation to halt the alarming trend. At current rates, almost half of Britain and America will become obese by 2030. The journal’s recommendations, however, have left many feeling uncomfortable with the idea of the central government intervening in personal choices and legislating on our diets. Some commentators have likened such controls to a dictatorship.
I disagree. In principle, the food we eat is a question of personal choice and personal responsibility, and that choice should not be influenced or dictated by those elected to govern. However, considering the strain obesity places on national health care systems, it not only effects the individual, but the whole of society. Consequently, governments should take action that allows people to make healthier choices and share equal access to a better lifestyle.
One of the main solutions suggested by researchers in The Lancet is for the government to impose a "fat tax" on junk food is to increase the cost of fast food, snacks, and chocolate, thereby detering people from buying and consuming it. However, this policy unfairly targets the poor and removes people's freedom of choice to buy and eat what they want. Obesity is linked in part to poverty, because processed convenience foods, which are high in salt, fat, and sugar, are cheaper than fresh foods. As a result, if fat taxes are imposed, the generated revenue should be used to subsidize fresh food, access to gyms, and the building of open spaces in poor areas to ensure that everyone has access to healthy choices.
According to a report in The Times, obesity is both cheaper and easier to prevent than it is to treat, and so education is a critical area that governments must focus on to stem the tide of rising obesity. Earlier this month in the U.K., McDonald’s led a voluntary initiative to improve public health by providing calorie information and guidance on its menus; however, this move is unlikely to change the dining habits of the majority of people. It would be more effective to invest in education programmes in schools and businesses to educate the whole of society about how to lead a healthy lifestyle, focusing not just on what not to eat, but also on the benefits of nutritional foods and exercise on mood, brain function, and life expectancy.
Advertising is another important area where governments should take the lead and legislate to improve public health. Several reports have provided compelling evidence that obesity is as harmful to health as smoking. A potential step towards tackling the problem would be to regulate the advertising of certain foods and to print health warnings on packaging, as is already done with tobacco and alcohol, which would provide consumers with information while leaving them free to make their own choice.
If obesity increases at current rates, the financial cost to health care systems will grow by around $3.2 billion every year in the U.K. and up to $66 billion annually in the U.S. due to the need to treat obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This will put an impossible strain on healthcare and potentially threaten the ability of doctors to treat patients.
While the government should provide help and support to people suffering from obesity, those with diseases caused directly by obesity should be obliged to make a commitment to improving their physical health and lifestyle or risk losing their access to treatment that is funded in whole or in part by the state.
Governments should not be blamed or vilified for the current obesity crisis. However, they should heed the advice of medical researchers and take serious action to prevent a pandemic. The effort to tackle obesity cannot be a purely top-down approach that uses a government-imposed tax hike to limit people’s access to cheaper foods. Instead, through education, information, and equal access to a healthy lifestyle, Western populations must understand the full scale of threats posed by obesity to individual health and to society, and they must be invested in sustainable solutions.
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