Stranger Than Fiction: Government Health Policy

For anyone who lives in the UK you will know that there are some big changes taking place. The change of the government in May has signaled a period of austerity (read: massive cuts). Mass protests by students have been a regular occurrence of the last couple of weeks but this is just the start. The government’s purse strings are being tightened and more unrest is a certainty as people oppose the wide reaching changes.  I have come across two news stories lately that really caught my eye. They link directly to public spending and governmental decisions, demonstrating real errors in the way the system is run.

The first article appeared in the Guardian. It is the news that the government is trying to write new policy about obesity, alcohol and diet related disease. To help write the material they have invited in guests to make suggestions. These guests are: McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellog’s, Uniliver, and Mars to name just a few. Yes, you are reading that right. The government wants to get ideas on how people can improve their health and well being by asking fast food companies. In the area of alcohol advise they have asked for suggestions from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA). How big business, whose only care is about maximizing profit at the expense of everything else, is going to help is beyond me. This decision by the government is the equivalent of getting Joseph Fritzl to come in and advise them on family planning or asking Adolf Hitler for ideas about race relations.

Big businesses concerns for people’s well being is lip service at best. The only time it is mentioned is in advertising and normally it is off the back of new regulation that forces them to remove some harmful substance or practice. ‘Our new nuggests now come with less spinal cord and tumors…not because we want to but because we have to’. Big business answers to shareholders pure and simple. Anywhere that money can be saved makes them millions or billions; people’s health is not weighed up in this equation.  If the government really wanted to make improvements to people’s lives they could start be asking companies like McDonald’s to remove the countless toxic chemicals it uses when making it’s food (and I use the term food very loosely). Instead what they are going to get is suggestion on how these companies can receive more tax breaks or recommendations that banned substances or practices can be reintroduced to help the companies ‘bottom line’.  Big society, more like big business.

The next story is appearing in most of the papers this week, but you can see articles here in either the Guardian or The Telegraph. As part of the governments spending review they are looking at cutting £20 billion from the NHS. This is at a time when the aging population is getting older, people by and large are unhealthier and more and more depend on drugs on a daily basis. The government says that these are ‘efficiency savings’ and that it will make the NHS a better service because of the changes. I guess they have to spin it some how.

What strikes me is how interrelated both these stories are. If the government was really serious about people’s health they could make some massive savings from both the NHS budget and UK economy at large. Unfortunately with the current direction they are not going to make any savings in the long run, not matter how much they cut out in the short term.

Prevention is always better then cure, especially when you look at these figures. Obesity cost the NHS £4.2 billion in 2007 and this is set to rise to £6.3 billion by 2015. Cancer costs the UK economy roughly £18 billion a year, directly costing the NHS about £5 billion a year. Alcohol abuse and misuse costs the UK about £25 billion a year, and costs the NHS £2.7 billion. These are all significant costs for illnesses, more so when you realise that they are man made and preventable. How is PepsiCo going to help the government get childhood obesity under control? How are Unilever going to stop the ever increasing percentage of the population getting cancer? How will the WSTA address alcohol related illness? The answer is they won’t.

David Cameron talks about his vision of big society, of people taking responsibility for themselves and not relying on the government. Given the government’s current approach with health this is one area I think this is a sensible suggestion. If you care about staying healthy please rely on yourself, not the government. You are a much better judge of what you should be eating and drinking then any big business organised focus group.

One of my mates always jokes that healthy eating is only about the food pyramid. If ever you needed proof of the Michael Bay style disaster that happens when the government combines with industry to make food recommendations, the food pyramid is that shinning example. It was designed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and rather unsurprisingly the base of the pyramid suggests 6-11 servings of refined carbohydrate foods per day. This has nothing to do with health and is all about promoting the products of commodity agriculture.

It is a sad situation that the government can not be relied upon for advice that helps it citizens but that is the situation we are in. My suggestion is that you look after your own health and treat any government recommendations with a degree of skepticism, especially when they come from Ronald McDonald and Grimace.

p.s. For the record I don’t think the previous UK government was doing any better. This article is not about a grudge I have with David Cameron but about the absurdity of a situation we now find ourselves in.

p.p.s. Michael Bay really knows how to ruin a film.

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Chris Sandel is the founder of He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.

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