Blaming the poor will do us a fat lot of good, Anna

Andrew Thorpe-Apps advises Anna Soubry that health is about education not economics.

PUBLIC Health Minister Anna Soubry has made some good points in the obesity debate. She has urged manufacturers to cut the sugar, salt and fat content of their products. She has correctly stated that parents have the ‘primary responsibility’ of ensuring their children eat properly. She has also launched ‘Be Food Smart’, a campaign which uses advertising, healthy eating tips and ‘money off’ vouchers to help people choose a healthy diet.

Unfortunately, Ms Soubry also recently said: “…when I walk around, you can almost now tell somebody’s background by their weight. Obviously, not everybody who is overweight comes from deprived backgrounds but that’s where the propensity lies.”

Data from The Poverty Site suggests there is no clear connection between poverty and obesity. Although the ‘skinniest’ group are indeed the richest women, the next skinniest group are the poorest men. If anything, the real division is to be found in gender, not income. Whilst the poorest men are amongst the skinniest in society, the poorest women are actually the fattest.

The available statistics simply do not paint a conclusive picture linking income with weight. The figures which Soubry herself has cited suggest only a negligible correlation. I’m certain that a whole range of bizarre correlations could be found if we looked hard enough, like bald men being more likely to own pink crocs than their hairy counterparts.

The most effective way to deal with a problem is to tackle the root causes. Simply patronising the poor about their eating habits will not help. What is needed is better dietary education in schools and better quality supermarket fare. If children get accustomed to a healthy diet at a young age, they are far less likely to become overweight during adulthood.


The Royal College of Physicians recently announced that obesity services across the UK are ‘patchy’. Britain now has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world – a quarter of adults are clinically obese, and the figure is expected to double by 2050. In England, there are around 110,000 ‘super obese’ patients who alone cost the NHS around £450 million per year. Estimates of the indirect costs (those costs arising from the impact of obesity on the wider UK economy, such as loss of productivity) could be as much as £27 billion by 2015.

In April 2012, a survey was taken of doctors in England and Wales asking whether treatment should be withheld for heavy smokers and the obese. It was found that 54% of those who took part said the NHS should have the right to deny non-emergency treatments to those who fail to lose weight or kick their smoking habits. Around 25 of 91 Primary Care Trusts in England have imposed treatment bans since April 2011. With public sector cuts biting, resources cannot be frittered away on those who have been unable to exercise reasonable self-control. More must be done to tackle obesity in the UK.

I have no doubt that Anna Soubry is genuinely ‘heartbroken’ by the scale of childhood obesity in Britain. In the run-up to the 2010 election, I campaigned for Ms Soubry across the Broxtowe constituency and met her on a number of occasions. I was struck by her compassion for those living in deprivation. Soubry is also outspoken and not afraid to divert from official government policy (she has publically spoken of her support for assisted suicide for terminally ill people).

Two women shopping in supermarket, standing beside trolleys in aisle, talking, smilingThe problem is, whenever a Conservative comments on the lifestyles of the ‘poor’, he or she is inevitably going to be attacked by the Left. Labour have happily jumped on the ‘classism’ bandwagon, just as they did during the ‘Plebgate’ affair. Soubry’s comments, coupled with this Leftist backlash, have meant that she has become the story. The public’s focus has thus been diverted from the real problems caused by Britain’s obesity crisis.

It is not a question of being poor – it is a question of poor education. Lecturing those on low incomes will merely obscure the issue. The government must enact policies which ensure people have a choice about their lifestyle and diet. If we do not have access to sufficient dietary education, we cannot make an informed choice. Once this is in place, it then becomes our responsibility. If people make an educated choice to eat unhealthily, they cannot then expect the tax-payer to bail them out with expensive NHS treatment. This is the message that Anna Soubry must convey.


  1. Good article.

    Totally agree with the notion of many lacking any basic knowledge of real food/dietary habits. Combine this with the disregard for exercise and we have a problem that is growing.

    I don’t think race comes into this at all, though.

  2. I would like to add that there is arguably a racial element to the obesity debate. Blacks are far more likely to be overweight than persons of Asian origin. Race, education and poverty all play an equal part in my estimation. I agree that Anna Soubry is wrong to put so much emphasis on poverty, though I think her remarks were taken out of context by the left-wing BBC.

    • The race card doesn’t trump here, Ryan and is ignoble. Income, access and knowledge are key factors anywhere in the world. And the BBC as left-wing? Purleeeze. Say something relevant..we like that!

  3. Good column, but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as just a lack of education about food, though doubtless that’s part of the problem. But most children do learn in school about healthy eating, and the government already warns people about the dangers of eating too much fat and sugar, and meanwhile the obesity rate keeps rising. It’s a complex problem which has been around for a long time.

    Part of the problem is that fatty food tends to be cheap and easy to make, and so poor people rely on it because they don’t have the time and money to eat more healthily. That said, it *is* possible to eat heathily on a tight budget, and that’s what education ought to focus on. Cookery lessons seem to be less popular these days, but frankly they’re one of the most useful things a school can teach. That’s where I’d start.


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