HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc469-71WH

The Government were asked—

1. Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

What assessment they have made of the costs of obesity to the national health service. [153639]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson)

The National Audit Office report, "Tackling Obesity in England", published in 2001, estimated that the direct cost to the NHS of treating obesity in 1998 was £9.5 million. Treating the consequences of obesity cost the NHS £469.9 million or 1.5 per cent. of the total NHS expenditure for that year.

Huw Irranca-Davies

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I pay tribute to the work of Cancer Research in bringing such an important issue to my attention. It estimates that obesity-related disease may cause 14 per cent. of cancer deaths in men and 20 per cent. in women. After giving up smoking, avoiding obesity and maintaining a healthy diet are the most important actions we can take to reduce the risk of cancer. On that basis, will she consider adopting a Portman-style approach to health education, encouraging those businesses involved in food manufacturing, production and retailing to get the message across—not only at the taxpayer's expense, but using their advertising skills as well as their financial resources to persuade people of the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle?

Miss Johnson

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the increased risks of cancer from obesity and to refer to the work of Cancer Research and other campaigns. I wish to point out, however, that the largest killer is coronary heart disease, to which obesity is a contributory factor. As for his suggestion, he will be aware that, during the past week, we announced a consultation exercise in connection with the White Paper on public health. It will seek answers to the questions that he asked about the role of the different stakeholders in helping people to live healthier lives. We accept that there is a role for the Government to play, as well as a role for individuals and for some key stakeholders. I shall bear his remarks in mind.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I had hoped not to have to say it, but naturally I thought that questions and answers would be customarily brief. I do not want hon. Members or Ministers to get into bad habits that might spread to the other Chamber.

Mr. Tredinnick

In the light of the huge costs to the NHS associated with obesity and unhealthy living, why did the Government allow the implementation of the food supplements directive, which by removing many safe and effective products from the shelves, will prevent thousands of people from maintaining their own health?

Miss Johnson

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in this subject. He will know that I might judge his comments to be tendentious, but I accept that he genuinely holds those views. I do not agree with him. We are still in the process of negotiating many of the details about how the directive will be implemented. I look forward to continuing to work with the health supplements industry on securing the best possible deal based on what is safe and necessary for the consumer, and nothing further.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op)

As my hon. Friend knows, I have a specific interest in promoting physical activity to tackle obesity. I am really grateful that we have this opportunity to discuss the subject. Three crucial Departments will have an input in the current consultation process for the White Paper. Can she reassure me that the Government will undertake genuine cross-cutting work on the issue and that the Department of Health, in particular, will not only promote physical activity and sport but use some of its finances to ensure that it supplements the work that is rightly being done in the Department for Education and Skills for schoolchildren and in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for grass-roots and elite sport? Will the money follow the good words that we are now finally hearing from the Department of Health?

Miss Johnson

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. My colleague the Minister for Sport and Tourism and I jointly chair the work that is done on physical activity. That is cross-Government work on a programme to stimulate more physical activity. We want to increase the number of physically active adults to 70 per cent. of the population by 2020. That shows the emphasis that we place on this matter.

As part of that work, we are investing in local exercise action pilots, a physical exercise project in schools. We have also invested in pedometers, for example. As part of the White Paper, we will look at physical activity; that will be an important component.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

Obesity affects the poorest the most, and opens up inequalities in health. That is not helped by the £5 to £6 surcharge that the common agricultural policy introduces into weekly grocery baskets. Given that the poor tend to be drawn towards unhealthy foods, what discussions has the Minister had with her colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in advance of the statement today on CAP reform? There is very little evidence in what I have read this morning of cross-cutting or joined-up Government.

Miss Johnson

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that, too. Much cross-Government work is done with DEFRA. I am also a member of the sustainable food and farming group that meets, with DEFRA leadership, under Sir Don Curry, to examine sustainable food and farming.

The reform of CAP has long been on the agenda. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we need to make progress on that for many powerful reasons. I am pleased that we are continuing to do so.

Dr. Murrison

I hope that the Minister has studied in depth the magisterial tome produced yesterday by the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Faculty of Public Health. What conclusions has she drawn from the fact that that lengthy document does not appear to contain any specific reference to the five-a-day healthy food programme? There might be a reason for that. Does she share the opinion of many organisations that that initiative, which has cost £540,000, has been ineffective? She might wish to reconsider its funding for the future.

Miss Johnson

On the contrary, we think that it is a successful initiative. One of the main authors of that report has been heavily involved in studying and improving diet in east London as part of his work on diabetes. The success of that work shows that if people can be persuaded to adopt a healthier diet, cases of type 2 diabetes can be reduced, as can those of cancer and coronary heart disease.

The evidence is that the five-a-day programme is increasingly recognised and adopted. It is an excellent programme.

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