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A glance at the UK’s obesity statistics tells a sombre story.  A quarter of women and just over a fifth of men in the UK are now classed as obese – giving us the highest rate of obesity in Europe.  It’s even more frightening when you look at the trend in children

One in three children in the UK are overweight or obese by Year 6 (aged 9) and based on current trends, this figure will rise to nearly half by 2020. 

As well as the obvious personal health risks associated with obesity – such as heart disease, some cancers, diabetes and respiratory problems – a population that is overweight is not cheap.  It’s estimated that the UK’s obesity epidemic could be costing the NHS £10 billion a year by 2050.

So what’s the answer?   If there was a single solution to tackling the problem of obesity, there’s no doubt it would have been found by now.  Governments across the Western world have long grappled with what works and what doesn’t.  Methods range from taxes on fatty foods (currently being implemented in Denmark) through to banning TV advertising of junk food prior to the watershed (as proposed by Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer recently).

The current English Government has recently focused on two key areas.  Firstly, the ‘responsibility deal’ – a series of voluntary pledges by industry designed to tackle big health issues like alcohol abuse and obesity. And secondly, their ‘call to action on obesity’ issued in October 2011, which included a pledge to cut ‘5 billion calories’ out of the nation’s diet a day.

But I’m convinced that on its own, ‘nudging’ people into changing behaviours, when the very environment in which they live is conducive to unhealthy lifestyles, simply won’t work.  And when it comes to industry, what’s incentive for fast food manufacturers to promote healthy eating? It’s like asking petrol companies to encourage people to cycle rather than use their cars.

It’s these concerns with current policy, coupled with the stark statistics, that led the medical profession, under the umbrella of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, to come together to launch an unprecedented campaign to tackle obesity.   There is a real sense that urgent, collective action needs to be taken if we are to stem the crisis and radically reduce obesity rates.  And by speaking with one voice, we have a chance of making a difference.

We’re starting with a 3-month evidence-gathering period, during which we’re collecting evidence from across the healthcare sector and beyond – including the public – on effective measures than can be taken by doctors, other clinicians, individuals, industry, education  and Government to tackle obesity.  We’re casting the net widely and inviting written and oral submissions of evidence from a whole range of organisations and individuals.  We’re interested in a whole range of possible solutions, looking at the broad areas of:
•         Action that can be taken by individuals (e.g. diet, exercise, positive parenting)
•         The environment (e.g. advertising; food labelling; sponsorship, the built environment, local authority policies and facilities etc.)
•         Clinical interventions (i.e. what are the effective interventions that clinicians can make on preventing and tackling obesity)
•         Fiscal measures (taxation, minimum pricing, corporate or personal incentives)
•         Education (nurseries, schools, further and higher education and public information)
The steering group, comprising representatives from all the Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties, will collate the findings and produce a report, due to launch this autumn.  We will make clear recommendations on what we, speaking on behalf of the medical profession, believe needs to be done if we’re to prevent generation after generation falling victim to obesity-related illnesses and death.

Our work certainly doesn’t stop there.  We’re absolutely determined that this isn’t just another report that gathers dust and has little practical impact.   So we’ll be campaigning hard on the key areas that we believe, based on the evidence, will make a real difference – and taking our message far and wide; to Government, industry, schools and beyond.

It won’t be easy but then tackling the greatest public health threat in the UK is never going to be.

Written by Professor Terence Stephenson
Monday, 30 April 2012 10:10

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