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The government has signalled its support for a report on obesity after furious criticism at a National Obesity Forum conference this week for years of inaction over the epidemic.
The public health minister Dawn Primarolo said that the Department of Health would work with Foresight, the government's futures think tank, to try to translate the report's findings into action.
The independent report, Foresight Tackling Obesities: Future Choices, which is part of the group's work for government, predicts that 40% of Britons will be obese by 2025, with the country being mainly obese by 2050.
Health problems caused by obesity will place an “intolerable burden” on the Treasury in terms of health costs; on employers through staff absence; and on families having to cope with long term disability, says Foresight. Obesity will cost society £46bn (€65bn; $92bn) a year by 2050, the report estimates.
The obesity epidemic has many causes, said Peter Kopelman, one of the report's authors and director of the faculty of health at the University of East Anglia. “It is [because] biological mechanisms [are] poorly adapted to the 21st century. The pace of the technological revolution has outstripped human evolution,” he said.
These changes have meant transport, work, and food patterns have altered so radically that solutions to the problem would require a “paradigm shift in thinking” by government, individuals, and society, the report says.
Although drugs and devices provide some help with obesity, they will never be full solutions. Neither will changing behaviour at an individual level, it says.
The report calls for change at an environmental and organisational level as well as in the “obesogenic environment” to reduce obesity at a population level.
Susan Jebb, one of the report's authors and head of nutrition research for the Medical Research Council, said, “Until now there has been far too much emphasis on a headline grabbing initiative here and there, but now the penny has dropped that it has got to be more systemic than that,” she said.
Ms Primarolo pointed out that the responsibility for tackling obesity did not lie with one government department but with all of them working together. “It means having thinking from education to the built environment, from planning to transport to what we eat and why we eat it,” she said.
New resources from the comprehensive spending review, announced last week, will support a “long term drive for action on obesity,” she added.
Meanwhile at the National Obesity Forum's conference, in London this week, Philip James praised Foresight for pulling responsibility away from the health department, which he called “one of the weakest ministries in government.”
“Now we have got the Treasury and the PM [prime minister] beginning to think we can start to do something,” said Professor James, chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce.
Earlier he told delegates that years of reports and research that show evidence of the rising rates of obesity among adults and children had been ignored by governments for far too long.
But food champions, such as Jamie Oliver, and public pressure mean that politicians are starting to change and recommendations on food labelling and restrictions on advertising were being introduced, he said.
The report is available at www.foresight.gov.uk.