Saturday 26 January 2013

The fat and the poor

This week, lots of outraged people—mainly on the political left—got themselves in a tizzy when public health minister Anna Soubry pointed out that childhood obesity rates are disproportionately high amongst low income groups.

This fact has been taken as read for many years. In all the time I've been writing about these issues, I don't recall anyone in public health having challenged it. But because a Tory pointed it out, various "debunkers" leapt on the "gaffe" and tried to show that it was baseless prejudice.

At the New Statesman, Alex Andreou called it a "big fat lie" while the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put up a response titled 'Most obese people are not poor'. Both relied on the straw man claim that Soubry had said that most, or even all, obese people were poor. In fact, she had said that "that's where the propensity lies."

And she's right. The BBC's health reporter Nick Triggle did his best to muddy the waters, laughably describing the evidence as "hardly categorical" even while showing a graph that displayed an obvious correlation and a perfect dose-response relationship (see below).

Why the controversy? Soubry's greatest crime was to not use the most politically correct language. She used the word "poor" instead of "deprived" or "underprivileged". As Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum said:

"It was the tone of what she said. It was arrogant and condescending."

As for the facts, he conceded:

"Yes it is true that the lower down the social scale you go the more likely people are to be obese."

On Twitter, big boned Labour MP Diane Abbott tried to whip up the mob. She reckons that pointing out the well known association between poverty and obesity amounts to "blaming the victim".

This is the same Diane Abbott who wrote in 2011:

Studies about the predictors of obesity in the UK have shown that the poorest are most likely to be obese.

I don't see fat people as "victims", nor do I feel the need to "blame" anyone for something that is none of my business. Even if I did, the incomes of those involved would have nothing to do with it.

Abbott, on the other hand, wants us to blame the food industry for making people like her grossly overweight. She won't take responsibility for herself and she doesn't expect anyone else to. As a state socialist, she holds institutions accountable for all human outcomes and believes that the only solutions lie in a more coercive government. Terrifyingly, this woman could be Britain's next health minister.

All this hand-wringing about "stigmatisation" and "victim blaming" is so much guff when you consider the campaign of "denormalisation" that has been waged against smokers and is gradually being waged against the fat. For a striking example of the latter, I recommend you read this new paper by the bioetheticist Daniel Callahan. He calls for a campaign of public shaming to complement other anti-obesity measures.

I believe only the government’s power to tax, to regulate, and on occasion to come close to mild coercion would be sufficient to make a difference.

... It will be imperative, first, to persuade them that they ought to want a good diet and exercise for themselves and for their neighbor and, second, that excessive weight and outright obesity are not socially acceptable any longer. They need as well to be mobilized as citizens to support a more invasive role for government. Obesity is in great part a reflection of the kind of culture we have, one that is permissive about how people take care of their bodies and accepts many if not most of the features of our society that contribute to the problem. There has to be a popular uprising when so many aspects of our common lives, individually and institutionally, must be changed more or less simultaneously. Safe and slow incrementalism that strives never to stigmatize obesity has not and cannot do the necessary work.

You can guess where he draws his ideas from...

When I was first drawn to think about obesity, I could not help thinking about the success of the anti-smoking campaign of recent decades. That campaign went simultaneously after the supply side (the tobacco industry) and the demand side (individual smokers). As a smoker, I was at first criticized for my nasty habit and eventually, along with all the others, sent outside to smoke, and my cigarette taxes were constantly raised. The force of being shamed and beat upon socially was as persuasive for me to stop smoking as the threats to my health.

All the usual propaganda can be found in this article, including the old "we have to expect liberty to be sacrificed when we're fighting a war" trope.

They no less need to understand that, whatever they may think about the power and excess of government, it is inescapable in this case, as much as with national defense.

Yes, we're all smokers now. If you can stomach it, go read the whole thing.


KevinWard76 said...

"The Child Poverty Action Group said there was clear connection between deprivation and obesity"

I actually thought Alex's piece in the NewStatesman was good, but your article highlights the 'attack the tory' attitude of a lot of the left and shows their hypocrisy.

Junican said...

If the 'obesity' equivalent of ASH organised a survey tomorrow, it would almost certainly show that 70% of fatties want to slim. That is much the same as 70% of smokers want to quit.

But such wishes, whatever the reason, are no justification for persecution in any form.

We must be aware, especially consequent upon the use of such surveys (and studies) as justification of the persecution of people who enjoy tobacco, that there is no NATURAL LAW OR HUMAN LAW which permits the persecution of people who simply wish to do what they want to do, without actually and directly hurting others. 'Harm' to the NHS cannot be described as 'hurting others'. Note the phrase HUMAN LAW. Any law passed by any Government which persecutes people on the grounds that they are plump is CONTRARY TO HUMAN LAW.
However, as usual, there is a corollary; nor is it incumbent upon The People to be OBLIGED to rescue people from situations of their own making.
That idea itself opens an very big can of worms. For example, should the Fire Service not attend a house fire on the grounds that the fire MIGHT have been caused by a cigarette? Should the Emergency Services not attend motorway accidents on the grounds that one person or another MUST have been at fault?
The reality is that attempts to regulate human behaviour are bound to fail because costs gradually increase while benefits to society gradual decrease. It has always been so. In any case, regardless of all the studies and surveys, NO GOEVERNMENT has the right to persecute people.

We must always remember that the smoking ban is persecution. It is persecution because it forbids a person to light a cigarette in a pub even though the publican does not mind. Also, idiotically, it forbids the publican not to mind!

The 'anti-fatties' agenda is clearly based upon the anti-tobacco agenda - create false definitions, publicise them, create hatred, bend politicians and lobby for laws. Oh, and create press releases which the press find exciting.

The ABSOLUTE HORROR, of course, is that the cyborg called Cameron has not got the sense to say, "Erm....."

Ivan D said...

I am prepared to give Nick Triggle credit for at least bothering to put some data together. This is an improvement for the BBC.

However, in the true spirit of BBC health reporting, the two "experts" quoted are political campaigners and creatures of the left. Tam Fry predictably uses the opportunity to push for more legislation and Alan Maryon-Davis says:

"And it must be remembered she also talked about bad food and industry so I prefer to give her credit."

So according to the former head of yet another taxpayer funded left wing organisation that seems to have no useful purpose, it is OK to be stigmatise people provided that you bash the food industry in the process.

Maryon-Davis and Fry are less vile and repulsive than Callahan but they are nonetheless a threat to decent, cohesive liberal society.

I have no left /right axe to grind when it comes to UK politics but I can't help but notice that nowadays it is the left who seem to be using the discredited excuse of "the end justifying the means" with increasing frequency.