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Obesity: a class issue?

This article is kindly reprinted from THE WEEK, 14 June, 2003.

Britain is turning into a nation of fatties, said Margarette Driscoll in The Sunday Times. According to the World Health Organisation, 50% of British adults will be obese in 20 years, thanks to the twin sins of gluttony and sloth. Already, thousands of overweight British teenagers are developing type-II diabetes, and obesity-related illnesses are costing the NHS around £500m a year. Alarmed by this drain on resources, the Government last week proposed a new scheme under which overweight patients would have to sign an agreement with their doctors to eat better and take more exercise. If they broke their pledge, they would be denied free NHS treatment.

It's a great idea in theory, said Rod Liddle in The Spectator: it would force people to take responsibility for their health and recognise the costs of self-indulgence. But in practice, it's completely unworkable. If you start penalising people for risky behaviour, where do you draw the line? Car accidents cost the NHS far more than obesity: should drivers be denied free medical care? Should we force promiscuous people to pay for a doctor if they get a sexually transmitted disease? What about all those selfish people who break their legs playing sports? To target fat people alone is completely unfair. No surprises there, then, said Janice Turner in The Guardian. Society has always had it in for fat people, regarding them as lazy, greedy and morally weak. And now that old prejudice has acquired a new angle: class snobbery. As the gap between rich and poor widens, Britain has become divided into an "overweight underclass and a super-healthy elite". Working-class children live on cheap, calorific diets of pizza and chips. Middle-class children, by contrast, have lunchboxes packed with wholewheat sandwiches and salads, and go to schools with good playing fields. Their parents, too, have the time and money to cook decent meals and join a gym. Fitness has become a "badge of financial as well as physical virility".


The problem begins in childhood, agreed The Observer, and so does the solution. The Swedes have addressed this issue by making sure that every schoolchild does ten hours of sport a week. In Britain, state schools provide a measly two hours a week of physical activity, and many have sold off their playing fields altogether. This trend must be reversed, and the national curriculum altered to include more sport. Tony Blair prides himself on his own physical fitness: now he must take a leaf out of his own book and "get the kids moving".

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