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'We're fat and getting fatter - and it's a life and death issue'

Don’t like the word ‘fat’? There’s no respect in cosseting people – and the food and drink industry – about this, writes Vincent McCarthy

Vincent McCarthy

THE WORLD HEALTH Organisation released a report at the start of last month warning that Ireland is moving up to the top of the obesity table; on current trends we’re being told that most Irish adults will be overweight by 2030. The statistics don’t lie. Look around – we’re fat, and getting fatter.

Sorry, we should not call people fat?

Maybe horizontally challenged might be more politically correct. While we are at it, could people stop calling me bald? I would prefer follicly-challenged. My hairless brethren and I have had enough. I’m joking of course, but I do think that our need to mollycoddle people has gone too far.

Let’s be clear, the obesity crisis is a life and death issue. There is no room for skirting around the issue. Yes of course people should be treated with respect, but they should also be made aware in the clearest way possible that they are overweight.

Doctors should be able to tell their patients straight, ‘you are fat and if you don’t make these changes to your lifestyle, you are on a path of ill-health and perhaps an early death’. In fact, isn’t that the ultimate sign of respect?

Speaking on this crisis last year, Ambrose McLoughlin, previously Department of Health secretary general and now part of the Healthy Ireland initiative, warned,We now know that obesity causes every disease and makes every disease worse. Nothing does that bar ageing.  The risk seems to be most acute for young people, with Mc Loughlin pointing out: If we don’t deal with [obesity], we will be the first generation to bury our children. A stark warning.

Truly frightening

This is not just fear-mongering. The statistics are truly frightening; 20-25% of children are overweight according to most studies. For instance, the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study showed that one in four 9 years old were overweight (19% overweight, 7% obese). The trajectory of this crisis needs to be arrested quickly.

The simple answer would be eat less (in particular less junk food), drink less alcohol and exercise more. For many adults, this is something they choose not to do. However, children are not equipped to make that choice. Their decisions will be shaped by their environment, therefore greater responsibility lies with parents in ensuring that those early sugar/junk food habits never develop.

In defence of a ‘fat tax’…

I recognise that there is also a much wider debate on the socioeconomic factors at play when addressing obesity. However, what about if we go right to the source of that habit, the food and drink companies that produce this rubbish. The idea of a ‘fat tax’ is being considered by the minister of health. Some will argue that it would impinge on personal freedom - ‘why should I be punished for having a Coke or a Big Mac, just because someone else can’t stop at one’.

The reality is that we as a society are all paying for the effects of obesity, whether you are skinny or fat. Safefood-funded research has estimated the annual cost, direct and indirect, of overweight and obesity is €1.13 billion; circa 35%, €400 million, relates to direct healthcare costs.

It places a huge burden on the healthcare system, which is paid for by our taxes, and will be needed for all of us at some point in our lives. We know that the healthcare system is failing, this additional workload only makes a difficult situation worse.

So the real question is, if we know that mass-produced low cost-low quality fatty foods and sugary drinks are at the heart of the obesity crisis, should these companies be allowed to earn profits while the state picks up the healthcare tab?

Source: Shutterstock

In economics, they are referred to as negative externalities, negative side effects on society which companies produce yet are not demanded to pay for. If a company produces food and drink that has explicit harmful effects on health, putting huge demands on our healthcare system, shouldn’t our economic model require that the associated costs be factored in at least?

…or do we value jobs and competitiveness more?

Perhaps if companies were forced to pay towards these negative externalities, they might adjust their practice. The additional tax revenue could at least go towards improving our healthcare system and funding educational campaigns on adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Of course the lobby groups for these companies will argue that a ‘fat tax’ is regressive (hurting those on lower incomes more if prices go up), as well as impacting jobs in the food and drinks industry and hurting competitiveness.

Therefore, the question on how to address the obesity crisis is as much a philosophical one, as an economic one, in terms of the society we want to have.

Vincent McCarthy is Head of Investments for Corporate Pension, Invesco Ltd. Follow him on Twitter @AskTheVMan

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