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Blair demands food industry cooperation to tackle obesity

By Anthony Fletcher , 27-Jul-2006

Government cannot be the only actor with responsibility over the current obesity crisis, said UK prime minister Tony Blair in a key note speech on public health yesterday.

Reflecting on developments in public health policy over the years, he said that business must recognise a corporate and social responsibility as the price of the new consensus in support of their role in wealth creation.

In effect, Blair called for a new and robust approach to tackling the issue.

"Above all a state that sees its role as empowering the individual, not trying to make their choices for them, can only work on the basis of a different relationship between citizen and state," he said.

"Government can't be the only one with the responsibility if it's not the only one with the power. The responsibility must be shared."

Indeed, Blair argued that current public health problems are not, strictly speaking, public health questions at all. Obesity for example is very much a question of individual lifestyle.

"These are not epidemics in the epidemiological sense," he said.

"They are the result of millions of individual decisions, at millions of points in time. For example, 20 per cent of all children in the UK eat no fruit or vegetables in a week. 65 per cent of adults and half of all children do not take the recommended amount of exercise."

Obesity is rising rapidly. 1 in 4 adults and children in the UK is obese, and rising. An estimated 1.7 million people in the UK have type 2 diabetes.

"These individual actions lead to collective costs," said Blair. "It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the consequences that inaction will bring."

Heart disease alone costs the UK nearly 8 billion per annum. The Health Select Committee estimate that the full costs of obesity and overweight people to the country is in the region of 7 billion per year.

"In my view, the reason we need a new and more robust approach to health is precisely because of the facts I've just listed," he said.

Blair pointed out that the UK is banning poor meat, fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate in school meals from September 2006. The Education Bill will also ban the sale of junk food and fizzy drinks in vending machines and schools will have to meet tough new standards for school meals by 2008 in primaries and 2009 in secondaries.

"We are working on a code with the food industry on limiting the advertising of junk food to children," he said. "But if by 2007, the voluntary code hasn't work, we will make it mandatory."

But he argued that Government needs to work with others to have an impact on persuading more people to make more healthy choices. He pointed to a new partnership with industry and the voluntary sector, which is designed to prevent obesity in children under 11.

Some 40 stakeholders from food manufacturing, food retailing, NGO and physical activity sector have been developing this approach, and this will now extend to encompass broadcasters, the video game industry and leading employers.

"All of this is good," said Blair. "But I still think there is a vast untapped potential out there for still greater partnership between public, private and voluntary sectors."

Blair's comments have been welcomed by the UK food industry, which is keen to point out that it is investing in the types of programmes that the prime minister is keen to promote.

"We agree with the Prime Ministers message that we need a partnership approach to tackling public health issues including obesity," said FDF director general Melanie Leech.

"Billions of pounds have been invested by industry to broaden the range of healthier food choices and to reduce levels of fat, salt and sugar. A number of manufacturers are rolling out clear labelling on the front of packs based on Guideline Daily Amounts to help them to do this," she said.

Leech said that the UK industry remained committed to working with Government through the Small Change, Big Difference campaign to encourage individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Blair's speech in Nottingham yesterday was the second in a series of lectures under the title Our Nation's Future.

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