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Boris Johnson deserves praise for his obesity campaign

PUBLISHED: 07:17 01 August 2020 | UPDATED: 16:25 03 August 2020

Prime minister Boris Johnson rides a bicycle during a visit to the Canal Side Heritage Centre, in Beeston near Nottingham, to launch of a strategy to get more people cycling. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Prime minister Boris Johnson rides a bicycle during a visit to the Canal Side Heritage Centre, in Beeston near Nottingham, to launch of a strategy to get more people cycling. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Prime minister Boris Johnson has recently launched a crackdown on obesity - and ANDREW PAPWORTH thinks his wilingness to take personal responsibility makes this a powerful campaign.

The government has announced fresh plans to tackle the obesity crisis in the UK. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTOThe government has announced fresh plans to tackle the obesity crisis in the UK. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Marmite is usually a good way to describe Boris Johnson.

Many people find him hilariously funny. Others emphatically don’t. Lots of voters believe is absolutely right on Brexit, as the 2019 general election clearly showed. A large amount of people dislike him for it.

His leadership during the coronavirus crisis has also attracted criticism and praise.

Yet whatever you think of the prime minister, in my view even his most ardent detractors cannot disagree that his obesity campaign is fantastic – and something for which he deserves great praise.

Obesity has long been a problem Britain and many other countries have long struggled to fix, so any campaign to tackle it is long overdue.

MORE: Revealed – More than a third of Ipswich year 6 pupils now overweight or obese

As a journalist, I remember writing stories more than 15 years ago about how one in four people were classed as overweight. I remember being shocked at the figure.

In fairness, the Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments have all run health campaigns and made sincere efforts to reverse it.

Prime minister Boris Johnson speaking to mark the launch of the government's obesity strategy.  Picture: Number 10 Downing Street/PA WirePrime minister Boris Johnson speaking to mark the launch of the government's obesity strategy. Picture: Number 10 Downing Street/PA Wire

Positive steps in recent years include much clearer labelling of nutritional information. Schools, I believe, are also much better at teaching students about healthy living than a generation ago.

Yet for all the good intentions, these campaigns have had limited success at best. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest parties of all colours have failed on it.

In the UK, 36% of adults are overweight and 28% obese. More shockingly, in Ipswich the number of Year 6 primary school children who are obese is 34.7% - not much above the England average of 34.3%.

MORE: Suffolk Lord attacks ‘revolting’ cereals amid warning obesity is ‘bigger than Covid-19’

Obesity seems to have gone up, rather than down. If you’re judging public information campaigns by results and whether people heed the messages, there’s no way this can be judged a success.

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If huge swathes of people were infected with a deadly disease, particularly children, very recent evidence suggests we wouldn’t hesitate in taking the right and proper emergency action.

Obesity may not put you in hospital immediately, but it does limit lives. Strong action does need to be taken - and sooner, rather than later.

Naturally, the current government obesity campaign – the latest in a long line – must be judged on its results. And I think the jury is still out on whether it will deliver success where other governments have failed.

GPs prescribing cycling is certainly headline-grabbing, but surely any doctor can already advise a course of exercise already? In fact, Leiston Surgery has been prescribing parkruns since 2018.

Many measures, such as moving high-fat snacks away from shop tills and making cycling easier in towns and cities are welcome. However, there is a risk they are cosmetic – rather than tackling the root of the problem.

One thing that is different about this campaign, though, is the way Mr Johnson and senior ministers are taking personal responsibility.

The risk of any government campaign is that it just looks like the powers that be telling us minions what to do. Often, that fails to cut through.

Here, Mr Johnson is leading the charge by talking openly about his own weight and how he can do better.

MORE: Shock as more people in Suffolk being admitted for obesity-related conditions

This is a humility that is not only refreshing, but I believe it also sends a powerful message. If the prime minister is prepared to live and breathe healthy living, maybe the rest of us should think about it too.

Extreme care is still needed over language and presentation. Debbie Watson, who founded the charity Wednesday’s Child in Suffolk to help people with eating disorders, has quite rightly pointed out that people with conditions like anorexia might feel even greater societal pressure over their weight.

I also think that, however positive Mr Johnson’s influence, a huge amount comes down to making healthy foods affordable.

The price of fruit can be extortionate. Who can blame a family for choosing a less healthy option if they need to watch their finances?

Yet none of this should take away from the positive effect the prime minister has had.

The campaign has a long way to go, and there might be plenty people don’t agree with Mr Johnson on – but, on this, he deserves our support.

■ What do you think? Write, giving your full contact details, to Andrew Papworth here.


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