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Gold, incentives and meh

TV entertainment is killing our efforts to tackle the obesity crisis

Letter from Dr Kosta Manis, Bexley, Kent

Public Health England’s guidelines for dealing with obesity, such as GPs becoming role models for physical activity is yet another futile attempt to tackle the obesity epidemic that ‘would cost £27 billion by 2015‘ (as predicted by PHE in 2007). Today, no one knows what the direct and indirect costs of obesity actually are.

As a GP, I cannot do it alone

Although my clinics for smoking cessation and substance avoidance were fairly successful, my efforts to reduce my patients’ waistlines have been a spectacular failure. But ‘failure’ does not fit in with a GP’s image of infallibility and I started looking high and low for the villain who was sabotaging my efforts.

I was soon struck by the proliferation of food and drink shows on TV. They came in every shape and size from MasterChef and the Great British Bake Off to Dinner Date and Hell’s Kitchen. Rose Prince established two years ago that we were fed 434 hours of TV cookery a week, which means you need an 18-day week if you wish to enjoy all the TV feasts.

The exponential increase of food advertising started in the spring of 2011, when the broadcasting industry regulator Ofcom allowed product placement (PP) on TV channels. Companies are obliged to display PP’s logo for three seconds at the start of a programme when a brand has paid to have their product featured within the programme. How many people know that?

Product placement has been an established marketing practice for nearly a century and in the 1920s, tobacco companies started paying Hollywood stars to promote smoking in films, and doctors to endorse cigarettes as an excellent expectorant.

As if PP was not enough to boost profits, a much more insidious and totally unregulated means of promoting consumption was cooked up. Celebrities, not satisfied with drinking and dining branded food in front of the cameras, ensured that their own BMIs were gliding into new heights. Fat was fab and obesity itself was now a celeb.

So, what can we do when dealing with a multi-billion pound industry, which has no intention of reining in its cash cow and is happy to keep feeding it? Particularly when the Government sits astride obesity enjoying both huge tax profits and anonymity from any responsibility about what is happening to its population?

As a GP, I cannot do it alone. I need the help of PHE, the agency responsible for the prevention and management of obesity since April 2013. Clearly, standard advice won’t work or it will be prove only a temporary cure, because essential ingredients in the ‘patient education’ pot are missing.

Campaigns to tackle obesity will fail unless people are told:

  • Switch on your survival alertness, currently hypnotised by brilliant psychologists, and detect early the enemy masquerading as entertainment
  • Allocate more time to books and periodicals and less to TV
  • Recognise that product placement also doubles for peer pressure
  • When you see on the screen ample celebrities, portly public figures and plus-size presenters sitting on overloaded sofas saying it’s OK to look like me, imagine them smoking and ask yourself what your reaction would have been
  • Finally, follow Hippocrates’ 2000-year old advice to ‘eat less and exercise more’ and ‘everything in moderation‘. If the famous physician lived today, he would have added: ‘beware of TV entertainment!’

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Readers' comments (4)

  • I agree, obesity seems to be not only socially acceptable but encouraged. Sadly I think this is in part due to the 'Americanisation' of our culture which is good for nobody.

    As GPs there is no point us telling people on low incomes to eat healthily when they walk in the local shop and can buy their day's calorie requirements in donuts for less than £2!

    If the government is serious about obesity it needs to put a fat and sugar tax in place and ALL foods need to be taxed like this, then put the sugary fizzy drinks in a locked cabinet behind the counter like cigarettes-that would be a start.

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  • You are quite right and I fully agree.
    The problems you describe are however due to kapitalism, fully supported by the state and the Western world in general.

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  • i think GPs are best placed to help.

    NICE need to produce some guidelines recommending that we check how much TV, what patients watch and what how they feel when they watch cookery programs and obese celebrities. we can then refer on to specialists in TV desensitization (i think they are part of mental health?) and provide guides on how to wean off cookery programs. This is not a society problem but is wholly best managed in primary care like everything else.

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  • Excellent letter! This is a societal problem that is being medicalised. The root cause is not being addressed which is education on healthy living. The schools should teach it and employers should promote it via schemes to encourage activity. There is no quick fix or we would have done it already.

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