A strategic approach to tackling obesity


References to ‘the nanny state’ and ‘nanny statism’ have been much in the UK news since last Friday (21 April) following the resignation of Dominic Raab from the government. The justice secretary and deputy prime minister resigned after a bullying inquiry found that he had acted in an “intimidating” and “aggressive” way towards officials. Not everyone agreed that he was right to resign. Meanwhile, some politicians followed up over the weekend by arguing that the government’s mobile phone emergency alert test was more evidence of the nanny state in action. Much less commented on was a report issued by the Institute for Government last week which argued that ministers’ fear of nanny statism is constraining effective government action on obesity. Its call for a “robust long-term strategy” chimes with one of the key principles underpinning Life-Based Learning – that we cannot continue on our current path. We need to recalibrate. Obesity is a health challenge we cannot afford to ignore or tackle in a half-hearted way.

We have previously described the phrase ‘nanny state’ as “a politically loaded term, used tendentiously to make an ideological point, namely that it is not the job of government to interfere (another loaded term, of course, as is ‘red tape’) in our everyday lives and decision-making”.

The phrase suggests that it is not the proper role of government to ‘meddle’ (loaded term number three) in people’s lives because it is a denial of our basic freedoms. For those sympathetic to this view, individual choice must be at the heart of any obesity strategy. The government should not be ‘instructing’ people on things like what they should and should not eat. They also argue that the greater the role for government, the greater the financial cost, meaning increases in taxation and government borrowing.

The Institute for Government is an independent and highly respected thinktank which aims to improve government effectiveness through research and analysis. Its report – Tackling obesity: Improving policy making on food and health – is, the thinktank says, the first in a series of reports on chronic policy problems, looking at why they have persisted and how government can tackle them more effectively.

It characterises such problems in this way:

Some policy problems seem to be too big, too complicated, or just too political for governments to fix. Ministers make grand statements of intent. New initiatives are launched to much fanfare. Strategies and targets appear on a regular basis. But still the problem remains.

The report makes the case that a combination of “political squeamishness and incoherent policymaking” are preventing progress against the government’s obesity targets.

It says that:

  • past governments haven’t effectively tackled rising obesity’s root causes
  • political squeamishness and cross-department policy-making incoherence have got in the way of more ambitious measures
  • government needs a robust long-term strategy and a cross-government unit to deliver it

The report argues that the idea of ‘nudging’ individual behaviour through education, information campaigns or nutrition labelling – empowering people to make healthier choices – is “laudable” but of limited effectiveness in the face of “huge changes in our food systems over the last 50 years, which have left us increasingly surrounded by food that is ultra-processed and high in fat, salt and sugar”.

The report urges politicians to get over their squeamishness about so-called nanny statism. Polling shows that “the public are highly concerned about rising obesity, particularly in children, and support government action, including interventionist measures like the sugar tax or advertising bans”. It cites the example of the smoking ban introduced in 2007 as a measure that has proved incredibly popular.

The report goes on to say that tackling obesity has not been a serious priority within Number 10 or any government department – “not even the health department, which is more accurately a department for the NHS”. It argues for “a robust long-term strategy backed up by clear targets and evidence-based policies – as it has for net zero”, and recommends changes within government, including the creation of a new cross-government food and health unit.

In the next blog we will explore how we might reimagine education as part of a fundamental rethink about how we tackle life challenges such as obesity that we face in the coming decades.

Image at the head of this article by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay.

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