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Volume 684: debated on Thursday 6 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to increase public awareness of the cost to the nation of preventable obesity.

My Lords, we have made available 2 million copies of Why Weight Matters, a leaflet for the general public, and 1 million copies of Your Weight, Your Health, a self-help booklet to help people control their own weight. In May we provided practical information to help health professionals identify and treat overweight and obese patients. Guidance on weighing and measuring primary school children has been published. There will be a national obesity awareness campaign in January 2007.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. We are all aware of the efforts the Government are making but one wonders whether the message is getting across, set against the £7 billion which obesity and overweight are now costing the country. As he and other noble Lords will know, in order to combat them individuals need to make enduring changes in their behaviour. Does the Minister know of any way in which the Government can get this message across, particularly the exercise component as well as the business of sensible eating?

My Lords, we have worked hard on this and there are a number of initiatives on physical exercise, including in schools. That is one of the key components of the follow-up to our Choosing Health White Paper. I remind the House and the noble Viscount what the House of Commons Health Select Committee said on this issue:

“The causes of obesity are diverse, complex and, in the main, underpinned by what are now entrenched societal norms”.

Solutions need to be long-term and sustainable. We are dealing with a complicated issue, which we will need to work on, with other people, over a long time.

My Lords, will my noble friend say a little more about children and obesity and the unparalleled and worrying rise of type 2 diabetes in children?

My Lords, there is, and has been for some time, a worrying rise in obesity among children. The obesity rates in two to 10 year-olds in England have risen over the past 10 to 12 years from less than 10 per cent to more than 14 per cent. We know that this is going on across most of the developed world and is leading to problems in type 2 diabetes, as my noble friend said. We need to carry on working hard to try to get this issue under better control.

My Lords, does the Minister think that 2 million copies of Why Weight Matters are sufficient when, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said, the problem is costing the economy £7 billion? Surely the number of copies should be nearer to 20 million.

My Lords, we are working on this matter and will produce more copies when the need arises. We are making the information available through GPs and other outlets. As the need arises, we will increase the capacity.

My Lords, several years ago, I entered by mistake the wrong Committee Room and found myself sitting at the top table of the all-party group on Obesity. Having entered the room and been given some strange looks, I felt it would be rude to leave. At the end of the meeting, we were all given pedometers and told that if we walked 10,000 steps per day, we would not be obese. May I inform the Minister that I have religiously worn my pedometer since then and that, so far, it has worked?

My Lords, the noble Lord is a tribute to his fateful encounter with the all-party group. He will be pleased to know that we are using pedometers in schools, and I hope that they will have the same beneficial effect there as they clearly have had on him.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the major problems for the Government in dealing with this matter is that three major departments are required to produce effective action? Have the Government given any thought to putting one of the departments in control to set targets for the other two, so that we do not waste so many resources and have a coherent strategy?

My Lords, the Department of Health is the lead department on this, but it is one of the strengths of the Government that we have three highly performing departments of state working together in partnership to take this agenda forward.

My Lords, I fully understand that the Minister shares my concern about the rising levels of childhood obesity. Does he share also my concern about the marketing of junk food to children? I agree that the Government have made great strides forward in the promotion of a better diet for children, particularly in schools, and I am sure that there is much more that we can do. What steps can the Government take to promote further the proposals in Choosing Health, particularly at local PCT level, where I am sure that many directors of public health are struggling to make them a priority?

My Lords, I reassure my noble friend that the Government remain committed to reviewing the success of measures undertaken on the balance of food and drink advertising and promotion to children in 2007. If these measures fail to produce change in the nature and balance of food promotion, we intend to take action through existing powers or new legislation to implement a clearly defined framework for regulating the promotion of food to children.