How nanny statists made hospitals hostile to obese people

    12 July 2019

    Last week, The Sun dubbed hundreds of obese Brits ‘moaners’ for complaining about NHS staff treating them rudely because of their weight. The story depicted NHS staff as merely delivering hard truths in ‘plain’ language, but the details of the complaints tell a different story.

    All tabloid articles require conflict: a baddie against a goodie. Politicians cheating taxpayers; crooks robbing old ladies; fat people moaning about doctors.Predictably, the obese patients were cast as the villains in this drama: such slothful gluttons never stood a chance against the saints that staff Our NHS (hallowed be thy name).

    The fable falls apart when you look at the complaints that did not make it into print. In one of the 332 cases between 2016 to 2018, a man who suffered a fall in his home called emergency services, only to be laughed at when the East of England Ambulance crew arrived and realised the extent of his disability. Specifically, they were ‘very amused’ when the patient confided that he could no longer fit in his chair.

    Another patient lodged a complaint with the East of England Ambulance Service after being told they would be left on the floor if they fell, as they were ‘a bit obese’.

    At a hospital in West Suffolk, an inpatient was ridiculed within ear range by a gaggle of nurses, who laughed at his penchant for requesting snacks from the hospital shop.

    Meanwhile, one patient complained a doctor had weighed them in a public area and then ‘shouted out’ the result at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay.

    This cruelty cannot be justified as merely a ‘bitter pill’ for making fat people confront their health problems. On the contrary, evidence shows negative attitudes and embarrassment at being weighed can deter obese people from using medical services, resulting in worse health outcomes. For example, weight-based stigma has been empirically linked to fat patients avoiding or delaying cervical, breast and colorectal screenings.

    Archnanny statist Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, was invited to prop up the morality play. He commented to The Sun: “If professionals duck speaking plainly, they are not caring: it may be tough to do, but it’s essential”.

    It must have made a nice change for Mr Fry to be on the populist side of an argument. Before, he has argued chocolate bars should be mandated to contain no more than 250 calories, saying this would constitute a “sufficient snack for anybody” (two Twix fingers contain 286 calories); he also once had the bad judgement to go on Good Morning Britain to argue for a fast food ban on public transport (earning him the hairdryer treatment from an incredulous Piers Morgan).

    Mr Fry and his fellow health crusaders are bonkers for bans, taxes and regulations on ‘junk food’, ostensibly to improve the welfare and lifespan of fat people. Yet much of their lobbying ends up stigmatising the very group they claim to help.

    Only last week, Cancer Research UK came under fire for ‘fat-shaming’ billboards, which plastered the word ‘obesity’ on the front of huge cigarette packs in place of brand names, with the warning ‘obesity causes cancer too’. This false equivalence between obesity and smoking tars fat people with decadesworth of negative public health messaging (‘If you smoke, you stink’), while suggesting tobacco style regulation of the food industry is the answer. Bring on plainpackaged crisps and graphic warnings on sweets.

    Another lobbying strategy of the nanny statists is to catastrophise the cost of obesity to Our NHS. This way, it is no longer a private health problem but a pressing public policy concern to be dealt with using taxes, regulations and bans. This argument ignores that obese people die 12 years earlier on average, saving the government billions of pounds in pension payments and non-obesity related medical care.

    Threats obesity will ‘bankrupt the NHS’ have fuelled resentment against fat people, even among those charged with caring for them. For example, at Derbyshire Community Health Services, a nurse reportedly told a patient she was a ‘burden on the NHS’ because of her weight; an anaesthetist employed by Homerton University Hospital told a bariatric patient they were ‘wasting NHS money’.

    Paternalists, driven to save obese people from the evil food industry, have whipped weight stigma to such a fever pitch it has even warped the minds of Britain’s most compassionate: frontline NHS staff.

    Meanwhile, if Boris Johnson becomes the next prime minister and sticks by his scepticism of sin taxes, lobbying for more interventions in the food industry could fall on deaf ears for years to come.

    But the nanny statists will be fine. They can continue in their cushy research and advocacy roles; there will always be jobs for paternalist cranks in the lucrative, state-backed ‘blob’ of public health organisations. The fat people they profess concern for, meanwhile, racked by a myriad of health problems, cannot even go to the doctor’s anymore without fear of being shamed.