Last Tuesday, the British Medical Association voted in favour of pushing for a permanent ban on selling cigarettes to anyone born after the year 2000, something that they will now lobby the government to introduce. It is a bold, headline grabbing move but in reality it not only seems unenforceable, it is completely illiberal. It is hard to fathom having that much control over citizens past the age of 18 but, because it is such a bold position to take, it does open up the floor to furthering the debate on what stance we as a society should take on other serious health issues.
Striking a balance between educating people on health matters whilst also simultaneously allowing the freedom to completely go against this advice is always likely to cause friction, but healthy habits can be coached into a society, take hold and flourish. It takes time, but in the case of smoking, as one of the doctors in opposition to the BMA’s latest move - Yohanna Takwoingi – noted, the number of smokers in the 11-15 age range has halved in the last 16 years. Progressive, forceful campaigns that warn against the dangers of things such as smoking are more preferable then directly intervening in the lives of people past a certain age. With all of that being said, where is the bold, headline grabbing statements about what action we should take on obesity?
We know there is a problem, and there has been some noise about food and drink companies reducing the sugar content in their products but it all sounds horrendously hollow and devoid of any real substance.
Given what we know and understand about fast food, ready meals and sugary drinks, and given that a third of British children are obese, is it not time to act and act in an urgent, firm manner? It has got to the point where our inaction in dealing with the health of future generations equals negligence. Why can we not ban the sale of junk food to under 18s? If not that, why can we not ban the sale of junk food to under 18’s unless they are accompanied by an adult? Why can’t we at least have that debate and extend it to include all of the other products that are helping to increase our waistlines whilst fattening the pockets of the purveyors?
Creatures of habit
It is true that we are creatures of habit but right now our eating habits are killing us. But what is also true is that it wasn’t always this way. It took a long time but a different way of eating and new norms about snacking and the prevalence of fast food took hold and flourished. Not only have these new norms flourished, but it is now such a profitable slice of the economic pie that we are preyed upon by food companies so that we continue to make the wrong nutritional choices, choices that are marketed to us in a horrifyingly calculated way. Take this from an article by Sarah Boseley in the Guardian:
“The government spends £14m a year on its anti-obesity social marketing programme Change4Life. The food industry spends more than £1bn a year on marketing in the UK. Guess who has the subtler operation? Big Food is watching you. Technology has allowed its scientists to track shoppers' eye movements, logging precisely which supermarket shelves we glance at – and which keep our attention. It's not just the in-your-face bright packaging with happy slogans, but which aisle the product is in. Food companies pay a premium to have their merchandise on end-displays, which account for 30% of supermarket sales. We are not as in control of our shopping as we like to believe. We go in with good intentions – we come out with large bottles of fizzy drinks and packets of biscuits.”
The idea of freedom in what we choose to put into our bodies - an idea that is so often used as a weapon with which to beat overweight people with - is an illusion. There is no real, genuine freedom, at least not within the system we now have. It is a system where the only winners are the producers of what amounts to poison, and they only win if they remain profitable, which means they rely on us continuing to make poor nutritional choices, which is where that £1bn marketing budget comes into play again. We have to fight back and be ready to take on a battle that cuts right across the nutritional landscape, goes far beyond the evils of fast food and includes the scourge of insane amounts of added sugar in an obscene amount of everyday foods. We need to think radically and differently to address the way we eat, the way we look at and talk about weight, and start building in forceful, progressive legislation into the way we guide and advise our young people so that good habits can once again take hold and flourish.
Just how radical do we need to be? Well that is where the debate needs to happen but happen fast. Why can’t we seize this opportunity to build in a whole new way of teaching about weight, self-esteem, mental health and marketing, things that are intrinsically linked? Whatever obstacles and arguments come up, the message has to be clear, we will not allow this farce to continue and sentence future generations to a life of ill health. We must be far more open and transparent about these issues and start to put safe guards in place from an early age. Nobody is saying that we must police people for the entirety of their lives, but until people reach adulthood we must strive to protect and guide.
Follow Hassan on Twitter @Hassanizzo86