by Marion Nestle
Nov 18 2011

UK Government fires advisory group on obesity

The UK Government has “quietly disbanded” its independent advisory group on obesity.  Apparently, it didn’t like the advice it was getting.

The firing is quite understandable.  The group was appointed by the previous government as a result of recommendations in what is known as the Foresight report: Tackling Obesities: Future Choices.   This report advised mapping out strategies for obesity interventions that went way beyond education about personal food choices.

The expert group followed this advice and recommended public health programs to change the food environment and counter food industry marketing.

The new government, however, prefers a “nudge” strategy.  Derived from behavioral economics, “nudge” involves no compulsion (e.g., taxes on junk foods).  Instead, people are free to follow advice to eat better but don’t have to.

Thus, the government’s Call to Action on Obesity in England focuses on individual responsibility and says nothing about the influence of food and drink marketing on food choices.

Two members of the expert committee, Goeffrey Rayner and Tim Lang, have publicly criticized “nudge” as “a smokescreen for inaction.”

No wonder the group was fired.

But as Professor Lang explains:

The closure of the expert advisory group is bad news all round: bad politics, bad policy, and bad science. It shuts the door on an important attempt by the state to recognise the systemic nature of what drives obesity…It’s plain as a pikestaff that obesity requires systems change, not a tweak here and there, yet that is what is being offered.

Doing something about obesity requires eating less and eating better, both very bad for business.   For this UK government, business interests trump those of public health.

  • Marion,

    Thank you for the article.

    My beliefs though side with personal responsibility vs. government coercion. For people to really change their diets, it’s going to come from learning from knowledgeable people such as yourself.

    This has to be a bottom up revolution, not top down. And with the likes of Pres Clinton going vegan, movies such as Forks Over Knives, the word is getting out.

  • Dad

    Thanks for flagging this. The US is not alone, eh?

    Isn’t it a bit ironic that huge businesses spend hundreds of millions to influence folks to put on weight, and tens of millions to influence them to take it off (again and again), but our collective governments believe in the almighty power of “individual responsibility”.

    If that was true, no company would waste money on marketing and advertising.

  • ETaddison

    I find it odd that Marion knows how to solve the ‘obesity crisis’, by getting fat people to eat less and to eat better.

    I’m curious. What track record does Marion have in treating obesity? What has been her first–hand personal experience in turning obese people into lean people? How has her ‘eat less and eat better’ strategy worked in treating obesity in actual people?

    Armchair pundit talk is nice. But how has Marion Nestle successfully treated obese patients herself?

  • jay

    With the “pizza is now a veggie” story, it’s such a depressing week…

  • Joe

    Here is what I find amazing about FP posts. It is that there are people who really believe that government makes our lives better. Sure in the sense that governments are established to maintain order via laws our lives are made safer but when it comes to issues of health and obesity aren’t they just trying to protect us from ourselves? And correct me if I am wrong but am I not able to do what I want with my body? At least that is the argument on other moral type issues.

    Government has a purpose but it is a narrow purpose to punish those who break the law otherwise it should leave people alone to make self directed decisions.

  • Eating less and eating better is not necessarily “bad for business” – just for some businesses.

  • Weiwen

    To be fair – my understanding of behavioral economics is that a nudge is a lot stronger than just friendly advice. One example might be auto-enrolling people in a health insurance or retirement savings plan. The default course there is inaction, making it a lot easier to get health insurance or start saving for retirement.

    The author seems highly skeptical of behavioral economics. I’m not sure if the author actually read the BMJ article, but the article said that behavioral economics was NOT a substitute for traditional regulation – it’s a complement. I’d urge the author to remove the scare quotes and engage with the ideas. “Nudging” is not exactly zero compulsion, in my mind. It certainly falls short of a legal mandate to eat healthily, but nudging is meant to set people up such that the easiest choice is the desired action. That inevitably involves government involvement.

    On the other hand, behavioral economics is a complement, not a replacement, for traditional regulations. Solving the obesity problem is going to require both. If you think that nudging alone will do it, you’re crazy.

  • Great article, the government of the day has consistently shown their hand for the last 40 years. They will never change and the problem will get worse though they need to appear to be doing something. You see the alternative is far worse, why? because the root cause of obesity is no where near as complex as they want us to think. It is simply this…Sugar Addiction! However sugar along with grain are powerful commodities with the ability to destabilise the security of nations…this is why they do nothing. Marion is indeed correct when she said this has to be a bottom up revolution.

  • Joe

    A comment on a recent post declared that potato chips caused obesity and now you are telling me it is sugar addiction? Who is able to keep up with the constant barrage of opinio-science?

    It is no wonder that health elitists are largely ignored.

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  • Michael

    ETaddison: I think you misunderstand the level at which Marion works. Dr. Nestle is not a clinician, and doesn’t treat or counsel individual obese patients, so of course she has *no* track record in treating obesity and turning obese people into lean people. Her work is on the public health level, working to make the food environment less prone to make people obese or even overweight in the first place, and making it easier for people /in general/ to lose weight if they want to. *Treating* individual obese people is an equally-important but very different job. Fire safety vs. fire fighter; automobile safety vs. roadside EMT.

  • Margeretrc

    “Doing something about obesity requires eating less and eating better, both very bad for business. ” I’m not sure I see how eating better is bad for business. It is bad for the processed food businesses, for sure, but not for people in the business of providing real, quality food!

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