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Health: Obesity

Volume 759: debated on Thursday 26 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Local Government Association’s report Tackling the causes and effects of obesity.

My Lords, we welcome the Local Government Association’s report, which provides a valuable contribution to this debate and demonstrates the contribution that local authorities can make and are making. This Government see local authorities as key to tackling obesity and other public health issues. Local communities know best how to tackle obesity, based on local understanding and need. To support this, we have given local authorities £8.2 billion of ring-fenced funding over three years for public health.

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply, but as the Minister will recall from his reading of the report, LEAs say they are the people to do the job but they simply do not have the cash to do it. They have had a 40% cut in their grant aid over the past five years and they do not have the money available to carry out this work. Will he look again at whether, particularly with what is happening in Manchester, some freedom might be given for people at LEA level to raise additional funding themselves?

My Lords, there is always scope to raise additional funding from charities and, indeed, from industry. Alongside the ring-fenced budget we have given to local authorities—it is the first time that this has been done for public health—we have a number of programmes in train which can work side by side with local authorities, such as the work going on in NHS England’s five-year forward view programme. Public Health England, in conjunction with the Local Government Association and ADASS, is commissioning work to support local authorities to take a whole-systems approach and look more widely in the way that the noble Lord has suggested. Public Health England’s Healthy Places programme is also relevant here, looking at how we can use the planning system to promote public health.

My Lords, in light of the alarming increase in type 2 diabetes, which is closely related to the incidence of obesity, what advice are the Government giving to the population at large about the dangers of overeating? When I was in clinical practice I used to advise my overweight patients to take a large dose of will power three times a day with meals.

My Lords, the noble Lord very eloquently makes an important point. There is no simple answer to the problem of obesity: it is multifactorial. However, in recognising that we need to communicate our messages to health experts and, indeed, members of the public—which is his central point—my department and Public Health England are leading work with a group of experts to consider how to make the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines easier to communicate to health professionals and the public. That work is progressing well, but we do need to progress it.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and I speak from personal experience. The problem of obesity is simply a matter of eating less and drinking less and that is 100% a matter of will power. It is not a matter of giving more money to local authorities, much as I understand their desire to have it.

I think that we should give money to local authorities, nevertheless, but I take my noble friend’s point: overweight and obesity are a direct consequence of eating and drinking more calories and using up too few calories. That is the message that we need to get across.

My Lords, have the Government taken into account the issue of epigenetics in their advice on obesity? For example, is the Minister aware of the research by Gregory Dunn of the University of Pennsylvania which has shown that a great-grandmother can pass on imprinted genes which affect her great-grandchildren, but only the females and not the males? That argues environmental influences that we do not yet understand. Is that being factored in with the advice that the Department of Health is giving? It will be an increasingly important issue. This is not only a question of overeating; it is a very complicated problem.

Yes, my Lords, that is being factored in, but I do not think that we should confuse that point with a certain sort of fatalistic approach to obesity. There are things that people can do with their lifestyle to influence their own states of health in all sorts of areas and we have to help people understand what those things are.

Does the Minister agree that this report is a model of its kind? It is brief and free of waffle and it emphasises the important point that obese people do not need to increase their activity one iota in order to lose weight; all they have to do is to eat less.

I agree with my noble friend. We should recognise that increasing physical activity is important for our health, but for people who are overweight and obese, eating and drinking less has got to be the key to weight loss.

My Lords, has the Minister had the chance to study this morning the reports of the research from the health campaign group Action on Sugar, which demonstrates that enormous quantities of sugar are found in so-called sports and energy drinks and that these are targeted at children in particular? One particular drink produced by a well known high street grocery—

Yes, Sainsbury’s. It contains up to 20 teaspoons of sugar in every can—far, far over the recommended limit.

Yes, my Lords, I was aware of that report. We certainly know that some energy drinks are very high in sugar. That is partly the reason why we have been so keen on making labelling work better. Public Health England is currently considering the evidence in relation to potential actions to reduce sugar intake generally. That includes a review of the evidence on fiscal measures; looking at marketing and promotions; and looking at incentives that have already been implemented internationally and at how effective they are. This is an important area.