Should obesity be treated as a disease?

(Title Image: Welsh Government, Crown Copyright)

This week’s short debate came from Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) on the subject of obesity.

The food industry should stop targeting children

While obesity is generally defined as excess body fat which adversely affects a person’s health, but while it has clear health implications – potentially cutting a person’s life expectancy by up to 10 years – it’s also a social and economic problem.

She questioned whether the Welsh Government’s strategy was bold enough to deal with the underlying causes of obesity – particularly concerning the food industry and junk food advertising.

“We have to stop the food industry from targeting children to eat the wrong things: that is completely unethical. And I also hope that we will be able to use the reregulation of the buses….as an opportunity to also outlaw junk food advertising on public transport. I think it’s very important that we use our public procurement muscle to ban junk food from NHS health centres and hospitals, and I applaud Cardiff and the Vale health board for removing all junk food from 13 of its hospital cafes and canteens, which it will be extending to its two community hospitals later this year.”
– Jenny Rathbone AM

There was also a need to strengthen rules around school nutrition and there should now be an expectation for all schools to have walking and cycling plans in place, possibly backed by vehicle exclusion zones around schools and a default 20mph speed limit.

If obesity was treated as a disease it may help address the stigmas attached to it and ensure there were clinical treatment options available – such as bariatric surgery – for those who need it.

Classing obesity as a disease wouldn’t change much in practical terms

Responding on behalf of the government, Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), said the numbers of people who are classed as obese increase each year, with over a quarter of Welsh four and five-year-olds are either obese or overweight.

That said, he didn’t think recognising obesity as a disease would lead to a massively different response to current initiatives, such as focusing on prevention and early intervention, as well as trying to increase physical activity.

“We know that having a consistent NHS response through the obesity pathway will help to play a significant contributory factor in this. However, what we cannot do is detract from the societal issues that we face to ensure that this is not an issue that defines the health of our population into the future.”
– Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters