Obesity: a 'national risk'?

Posted on December 11, 2015

England's chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has been widely quoted today, promoting her new report on women's health, declaring that obesity is a 'national risk' on a par with climate change and terrorism. 'Obesity has to be a national priority. Action is required across all of society to prevent obesity and its associated problems from shortening women's lives and affecting their quality of life.'

Oh, and what kind of action might that be? Davies told BBC News: 'We need to stop two-for-ones on everything in supermarkets and putting unhealthy foods in easy-to-reach places. If industry do not deliver on that, like the rest of my profession I believe we will need a sugar tax.' This is a very odd comment - and a worrying one, too. If this really is a 'national risk', why suggest things that will be of marginal benefit in solving it? Does Davies really think that we've got fatter because of supermarket offers and promotions? Maybe she thinks obese women will simply be too fat to reach down if the forbidden treats are on the bottom shelf.

Her comment is worrying because her reflex reaction to the obesity 'crisis' is to blame food manufacturers and supermarkets. It does not compute for her that people should have choice, but with that choice comes personal responsibility. Nobody thinks that biscuits are a health food, but many people enjoy them and balance for themselves the pleasure with the potential risk of an expanding waistline. And there's that threatening tone: 'Dear industry, do what we say 'voluntarily' or we'll hurt you financially.' Demand something with menaces - that's usually called 'blackmail'. And when she says 'the rest of my profession', what she really means is that brand of doctors who believe they have a moral imperative to tell the rest of us how to live our lives.

If this all came against the backdrop of an epidemic of disease, with men and women dying at ever-younger ages, there might be some sort of case for action. But in reality, obesity rates have plateaued and we're living longer than ever before. The real threat is to our freedom to choose, which is being diluted on a seemingly daily basis. A sugar tax, for example, would represent the government interfering in what we choose to consume and would certainly hit poorer people in society harder than the wealthy. It is this medically justified illiberalism that is the real 'national risk'.

Davies would be much better served by recalling the very first thing she learned in medical school: first, do no harm.