Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

A ban on snacking in public might seem extreme – but our health crisis demands tough measures

If taxation and education force people to be healthier, the stick approach might be a price worth paying

Doctors in the UAE have become increasingly worried about what some see as an obesity crisis. Sammy Dallal / The National
Doctors in the UAE have become increasingly worried about what some see as an obesity crisis. Sammy Dallal / The National

Sitting in a London cinema at the start of a new film, the family next to me tore into packets of crisps, peanuts, popcorn and smelly tuna sandwiches. They popped open fizzy drinks and what was supposed to be a cinema became, for them, a restaurant too.

On a London bus one afternoon, schoolboys climbed on board with boxes of fried chicken. They tucked into their mid-afternoon snack, presumably on their way home for dinner.

I’m not sure how much snacking goes on in cinemas, trains and buses around the world but it has become a hot political topic in Britain. We are now a fat nation, with obesity shortening lives by about three years on average.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s outgoing chief medical officer, has called for a ban on eating and drinking on public transport. Cue outrage from some tabloid newspapers that the “nanny state” is telling people what to do. But Prof Davies – the “nanny-in-chief”, as the tabloids call her – is making a scientifically rigorous, even if politically perilous, point.

She is not alone. Globally, our increasingly sedentary lives and poor diets are leading to an obesity problem. In the UAE, up to 40 per cent of children are overweight or obese, according to health authorities. Doctors in the UAE have become increasingly worried about what some see as an obesity crisis, with lifestyle choices leading to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other preventable ailments. The UAE has responded with hefty taxes – 100 per cent on tobacco and 50 per cent on sugary drinks – but much more has to be done.

What we eat is a personal choice – but the consequences for wider society and healthcare systems mean that personal choices about eating are also a serious political concern

In Britain, one in three children aged between 10 and 11 is overweight and one in five is obese, according to recent government figures. Being fat was historically a sign of wealth. Now it tends to be a sign of being poor. Dentists complain about an epidemic of very young children having their rotten teeth extracted because parents fill infant feed bottles with sugary drinks. “Today’s children are drowning in a flood of unhealthy food and drink options, compounded by insufficient opportunities for being active,” Prof Davies says. “I want to see our children’s health, not companies’ profits, put at the forefront of government policy. It is every child’s right to live in a world that promotes, not harms, their health.”

What we eat is a personal choice. But the consequences for wider society and healthcare systems mean that personal choices about eating are also a serious political concern.

Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that obesity cuts British GDP by 3.4 per cent and costs the healthcare system an extra £409 (Dh1,886) a year for every taxpayer. Worldwide, there is "an urgent economic and social case to scale up investments to tackle obesity,” according to the OECD secretary general Angel Gurria.

Food companies, especially those producing snacks which contribute to obesity, inevitably resist changes which hit profits

So what should governments do? Education and taxation are two possibilities. So is coercion, including banning snacking on public transport, as Prof Davies suggests. Food companies, especially those producing snacks which contribute to obesity, inevitably resist changes which hit profits. They often market their products by associating them with health, fitness and sport. But that is now being challenged. There is a row about a snack company sponsoring a British cricket competition in which they provide teams with shirts that advertise their products. And Britain has introduced a soft drinks industry levy, a sugar tax on the sweetest drinks sold.

Such taxes are resisted by the industry, even though the consumption of cola and other sweet drinks can lead not just to obesity but also to type 2 diabetes.The food industry funds PR lobbyists and supposed think tanks to argue that the sugar tax falls mostly on the poorest among us.

That might be true but it is irrelevant. As with tobacco taxes, sugar taxes will inevitably fall on those whose health is most at risk, and taxes change behaviour. Low taxes can act as an incentive, high taxes as a disincentive. If high sugar taxes improve a nation’s health but hit company profits, then perhaps companies need to change their products and think more about having wider social responsibilities beyond sales figures.

As Tam Fry, chairman of the UK’s National Obesity Council, pointed out in a letter to The Times newspaper, a ban on smoking at work in Britain was hugely controversial when it was first introduced. But today anyone smoking in an office is regarded not just as rude and eccentric but a health hazard and a law-breaker.

Clearly a ban on snacking on public transport would be problematic. Would it be sensible or enforceable on long train or bus journeys? What about those – including young children – who might need to eat often?

I have my doubts whether Prof Davies has the best solution to the obesity crisis but she has certainly highlighted a serious and growing problem. Food manufacturers sometimes lecture us that it is fine to eat junk food as part of a balanced diet. But those who are obese or heading for diabetes are often not eating a balanced diet. And if taxation and education make our children healthier, that is a price worth paying.

As for those eating smelly tuna sandwiches in the cinema, governments have no solution. I changed seats.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: October 15, 2019 03:57 PM

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