One Local Council’s Approach to the Obesity Problem

This is interesting. In the “big questions” section in today’s “Independent” newspaper, food writer Michael Pollan answers questions (presumably submitted by readers), about food and our attitudes to it. One question in particular stood out for me:

Q: “…Birmingham Public Health is talking about a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to the obesity problem. But is obesity here to stay?”

Mr Pollan addressed the main question by saying he’s a “journalist not a seer” but on the prior comment about Birmingham, all he said was:

“I just don’t know what zero tolerance means in practice. What do they propose to do?”

Yes, what do they propose to do? Seeing as Michael Pollan clearly hadn’t taken the time to investigate, I thought I would. One quick Google search later and I found the following link to an article in the Birmingham Mail:

http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/lifestyle/health/birmingham-healthy-vending-machines-action-4020591

The article begins with an alarming fact – namely, that Birmingham is “Europe’s fattest” city “according to statistics”. Turns out the statistics are from the Association of Public Health Observatories (now part of Public Health England), and were published in 2010. They claimed, at the time, that 29% of the adult population of the City was obese. I’ve dug around to find the original set of statistics and this seems to be them:

http://www.nepho.org.uk/securefiles/130601_1010//West%20Midlands.pdf

Another article, published in response to these statistics, highlights how “£15 million of NHS funds [were] being directly targeted at tackling obesity”. But that was before these stats, meaning the tactic failed.

Hence, it would seem, this new “zero tolerance” approach. But, as Michael Pollan says – what does that mean?

A working group of the Birmingham Health and Wellbeing Board is currently working on a Birmingham Childhood Obesity Strategy and some of the ideas (mentioned in the first article linked to above), include banning unhealthy snack vending machines from council leisure centres. It’s probably an obvious statement to say that kids are the most likely to use these and in Birmingham, the childhood obesity rate is shockingly high (a quarter of 11 to 12 yr olds) – so on paper, this seems like a good idea.

In fact, it’s not a new idea – a similar proposal is already on the table in California, which is aiming to phase out unhealthy vending machine snacks on state run premises by 2017. California clearly has an obesity problem, with one report claiming that the state’s obesity rate could double to nearly 50% by 2030!

This proposal is a controversial  idea, similar to the New York cap on huge soda drinks (which got blocked by a court before it could come into force). In the case of vending machines, some people are arguing that making them 100% healthy, takes away “choice”.

It’s not clear if the Birmingham idea would follow California’s gradual phase-in plan or would be 100% from the get go, but either way, it’s clear from the figures that something needs to be done.

If taking away someone’s “choice” to put money in a vending machine, on council property, in return for a snack that’s high in fat and sugar (and or salt), is what’s needed to help slow people down, then that’s a good thing right? Why should Birmingham City Council spend so many millions of taxpayers’ money trying to tackle its obesity crisis, and then facilitate it on its own property?  People still have the “choice” to walk to the nearest shop and purchase unhealthy snacks if they so wish – in fact, one might argue that the extra walk might be beneficial!

It’s not an idea to be seen in isolation though. Clearly more local incentives are needed to target not just children, but adults too. This is just one idea that will (if it’s adopted), be part of a much wider strategy for Birmingham but if it’s successful, it’ll doubtless become a blueprint for other local authorities that are desperately struggling to cope with heavier populations.

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