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Health: Obesity

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether in their recent report on obesity the Foresight group considered the effects of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A on the developing foetus and young children.

My Lords, the Foresight group examined how to develop a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years. It used robust evidence from the biological and social sciences to map the complex interactions between factors driving obesity. At present, evidence of the effect of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on obesity in humans is sparse, so this was not considered by the report. The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment keeps research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals under review and will consider any significant developments in the area of human health.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she aware that bisphenol A is ubiquitous? It is in all our plastic containers, in dental coatings and even in babies’ bottles, from which it will leach into the baby’s milk if the bottle is heated in the microwave. In view of the fact that research scientists working with animals have found that levels as much as 5,000 times below what is accepted as a safe level affect the foetus, will the Department of Health consider commissioning an epidemiological study of pregnant mothers—taking blood tests from them and then studying the babies after they are born—to see whether there is any relationship between bisphenol A and obesity in children?

My Lords, I thank the noble Countess for her interest in this chemical. While I am not in a position to make any commitments today, I will, of course, take back the suggestion made by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, to the Foresight group and to the department. I am aware of the frequency of bisphenol A in various products. This area is taken very seriously by the relevant government departments and all new research is monitored and reviewed as appropriate.

My Lords, having conceded that the public health threat posed by obesity in the United Kingdom is,

“a potential crisis on the scale of climate change”,

why have the Government halved lottery funding for community sport and decided to push back their target to halt the rise in childhood obesity from 2010 to 2020?

My Lords, I cannot agree with the position the noble Baroness puts for the Government. The new ambition is not a watering down of the 2010 target; indeed, it goes further. Whereas the 2010 target was to halt the rise in childhood obesity, the new ambition not only aims to reduce the prevalence of obesity in children but also the prevalence of overweight to 2000 levels by 2020. The Government’s response to the report has been a very proper cross-cutting response.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the report also mentioned that obesity in children was possibly caused by lack of exercise and the lack of opportunity through daylight saving not being applied? I raised this matter with her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Darzi. He has written to me to say that headmasters and headmistresses have agreed with that factor but that some other factor, which he did not specify, is the reason why daylight saving is not looked at more seriously by the Government?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, on using every opportunity that he can to ensure that he presses us on the issue of daylight hours. I will take back to the department his question about the debate held on 17 October, his intervention and the response that he had from my noble friend Lord Darzi.

My Lords, the noble Baroness did not answer my noble friend’s question about why the Government have halved—halved—the National Lottery commitment to community sport.

My Lords, I will of course write to both noble Baronesses. I do not have briefing on the National Lottery in front of me, but spending on tackling obesity has been very substantial over the past 10 years. On healthy schools, £100 million a year has been spent to get food standards up in schools. On high-quality physical education, 86 per cent of children now have two hours per week of high-quality physical education, as opposed to only 50 per cent of children in 2004. A great deal of funding has been going to tackle obesity.

My Lords, what is the department's response to the Foresight recommendation that private industry—in particular, the food industry—should be involved in longitudinal research into basic biological factors in our bodies and the impact of the built environment on diet and exercise?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The report shows how all those factors are interrelated in obesity. Obesity is not simply about eating less, exercising more. Although that is very much part of it, it is too simplistic. There are food production factors in the industry, which the noble Baroness mentioned, food consumption, physiology, psychology, individual physical activity, and the physical environment that we live in. Modern life is making us more overweight, more obese, because of convenience foods, high technology and new modes of transport. It is about individuals' willpower, but it is about much more than that.

My Lords, I am not sure that I should be talking about obesity, but surely the Minister agrees that obesity in children is mainly started by a lack of home cooking and the cheapness and availability of ready-made foods and drinks containing a great deal of sugar, apart from anything else?

My Lords, I have to agree, and noble Lords might agree that I am not the best person to be answering a Question on obesity. I kept wanting to have a biscuit when I was working on this brief. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness: this is very much about nutritional food. Anything that the Government and all other stakeholders can do to increase the proportion of nutritional food and to decrease our reliance on high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar content food is a good thing.

My Lords, with regard to the concerns raised by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, can my noble friend tell us whether the Foresight group is looking at the steep rise in diabetes 2 among children and its association with obesity?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important point. The Foresight report, which I recommend to noble Lords because it is absolutely fascinating, predicts that by 2050, 60 per cent of men, 50 per cent of women and 26 per cent of children will be clinically obese without action—that is not predetermined, it is without action. My noble friend referred to diabetes type 2. It would rise to 70 per cent, strokes by 30 per cent and chronic heart disease by 20 per cent.