Obesity, the new terrorism? Hyperbole has nowhere left to go

    11 December 2015

    Keeping the obesity panic on the front pages requires an escalation of hyperbole that can never end well. In a desperate bid for attention Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, today resorted to comparing obesity to international terrorism. The Sun responded with a front-page story under the wonderful headline: ‘Aporkerlypse’. The BBC responded with an article about taxing sugar despite neither sugar nor taxes being mentioned in the report Davies was promoting.

    Davies’ defenders might argue that obesity has killed more people than ISIS, but this ignores the crucial difference between self-inflicted risk factors for diseases of old age and indiscriminate slaughter of innocents. Beheadings and bombings exist in a different moral universe to high blood pressure and diabetes. Being a couch potato is not equivalent to being burned alive. An 80-year-old dying in hospital is not the same as a teenager being machine-gunned in the Bataclan. Only a moral cretin could fail to see the difference.

    How do the propagandists of ‘public health’ top this? The only inappropriate and distasteful analogy left is to compare obesity to Hitler. After that there is nowhere to go.

    Fortunately — for them — there is an evergreen slice of alarmist claptrap that can be repeated ad infinitum. It reappeared today, this time from the lips of UCL’s Professor Nick Finer. ‘Estimates of the economic costs of obesity suggest they will bankrupt the NHS,’ he told the BBC.

    I know of no economist who thinks that obesity will bankrupt the NHS, just as no economist thinks that war will bankrupt the Ministry of Defence or crime will bankrupt the Home Office. Government departments do not go bankrupt. Their management can be replaced. They can be given smaller budgets. They can even be closed down. But go into administration? Send in the receivers? Never.

    The old trope about bankrupting the NHS is a cousin of the equally tired claim about the NHS being on the ‘brink of collapse’. The clear implication is that we could wake up one day and find that the NHS — ‘our NHS’, as politicians feel pathetically obliged to call it — has disappeared. The doors are bolted on A & E. Doctors are throwing themselves off the 15th floor. Consultants are clearing the contents of their desks into a brown box.

    This is not going to happen. The language of the private sector does not translate to the public sector (nobody thinks that the rush of Christmas shoppers is putting Asda on the ‘brink of collapse’). Companies like Lehman Brothers and Allied Carpets go bust. Public bodies which are guaranteed £100 billion of taxpayers’ money every year do not.

    What these people really mean is that the rise of obesity-related related diseases will put the NHS under greater strain. This is obviously different to going bust. If the NHS charged people on the door, it might be happy to see more customers, but since it is funded by taxpayers it can only demand more money from the government. Being a national religion, politicians usually comply. In the worst-case scenario, the quality of services would deteriorate. In no realistic scenario would the entire service ‘collapse’.

    From the earliest days of the NHS, there were complaints about the service being put under strain by time-wasters and hypochondriacs. Seventy years later, little has been done to stop the abuse of the system by those who respond in a predictable way to something that is ‘free’. Instead, scapegoats have been found among those who lead supposedly unhealthy lifestyles: smokers initially, but then drinkers and fatties. In truth, there is very little evidence that any of these groups consume more tax revenue than those who live ‘healthy’ lifestyles. On the contrary, by living longer it is the healthy cohort that tends to be the most expensive to keep whereas smokers and obese people shuffle off this mortal coil before their pensions and nursing homes make them a true drain on the taxpayer.

    This simple economic fact is rarely acknowledged, least of all by people like Sally Davies. If she admitted that healthier lifestyles lead to more old people and, therefore, greater costs, the superficially powerful economic argument for state intervention in lifestyles would come crashing down. Better to pretend that an organisation which cannot go bust will be bankrupted unless something is done about a condition which, even by her own estimates, is unrelated to 95 per cent of NHS expenditure. Sugar is the new tobacco! Obesity is the new terrorism! Coming to terms with the truth — that if the NHS could go bust, it would be because of a healthier and ageing population — is too awful to contemplate.