A BLISTERING ROW broke out on Claire Byrne Live during the week as the show munched on the topic of Operation Transformation. Some folks were critical of the now well established RTÉ series for, essentially, being a form of “fat shaming”.
We seem to now live in an age when every group needs to be mollycoddled. The avoidance of offence seems to be the highest priority of discourse.
So it is that a show about promoting a great public good, fighting obesity, can be a source of controversy.
Ireland is a fat country. There is no getting away from it: 60% of us are overweight or obese, and the World Health Organisation reckons that 87% of adults will be overweight by 2030 if current trends continue.
This is not a long term, maybe-it-will-maybe-it-won’t type problem. As a nation we are in first world demographic decline: We are getting older, we will have fewer people at work for everyone retired, and we are getting lazier and fatter and will be unable to properly support ourselves in the decades ahead.
Our health service creaking
Overweight people are sicker people, and the more of them we have the more the health service will creak under funding difficulties.
That’s the economic argument, quite aside from the personal one. For all that, we get to enjoy guzzling pints and rich meals, overweight people suffer poorer quality of life as their health deteriorates. Our loved ones will, ultimately, get to spend less time with us on this earth.
In short, being fat is a serious problem.
Some people don’t like to be told the harsh truth. They’re offended by “fat shaming” or uncomfortable being confronted by the topic. If we mollycoddle these people, so that they can continue to live in cotton wool and ignore the problem, we will do them and our society a disservice.
A TV show that helps us lose weight – what’s the problem?
We need to fight obesity as a national imperative, and a show on TV is the least we could be doing to help the country lose a bit of weight.
Fat shaming as a form of bullying is not okay. It is not fine to abuse someone for their weight. But what passes for “fat shaming” is relevant. A show like Operation Transformation is clearly not shaming overweight people: It is trying to help them, by showing the real struggles that other people have with their weight and by encouraging folks to get active in a positive and shared experience.
If your doctor tells you to lose some weight, they are not “fat shaming” you. If you’re having an argument with someone and they remark on your weight, it’s bullying. There’s a clear distinction.
We rightly abhor bullying as a society, but we cannot give up entirely on prodding people to do the right thing when advice is proffered in a contextually relevant way.
We need a national strategy on obesity that goes beyond a TV programme and some quangos to distribute leaflets. I’m not a fan of the nanny state, but at the same time I recognise that when you effectively live in one the costs of something like obesity will only be passed on to the taxpayer down the line.
Tax relief on gym memberships
Government could try a number of innovative and not so innovative approaches to get people moving. Gym memberships could become something we provide tax relief on, the way certain insurance policies and even – until recently – mortgages got it. Folks who don’t attend the gym could have the tax relief cut off and clawed back, creating a carrot and stick incentive.
On the not so innovative side, we operate a health insurance system that is rigged to be as fair as possible. So overweight people don’t pay more for insurance, nor do they bear the additional costs on the public health system when they do not have health insurance.
Someone else can pay for the trouble they are inflicting on themselves.
I disagree with a sugar tax as it’s too broad a measure to impact on those that need it. Taxes on cigarettes affect all smokers, but taxes on sugar would catch healthy as well as overweight people.
But there is a real cost to obesity, currently pegged at about a billion a year off the health budget, and we should look at levying additional income taxes or shaving cash off welfare payments for people presenting with weight related issues.
Think that’s unfair? Well, being overweight is a choice for the vast majority of people.
There are cases of people suffering from real medical ailments, and let them get doctors notes. For the rest of us, we’re just too gluttonous and too lazy for our own good; and for the good of the people we expect to pay for our folly.
Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.