Britain debates ′nanny state′ on health issues | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 04.04.2014

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Britain debates 'nanny state' on health issues

Smoking, drinking alcohol, eating too much fat, salt and sugar – all of that can ruin your health. As a result, Britain is again debating the ‘nanny state’ and how much it should interfere in people's lives.

Two out of three Britons are overweight or obese. That's according to a report published by the UK's Overseas Development Institute earlier this year. And obesity is on the rise – not just in Britain. The ‘Future Diets' report says that worldwide, one- in-three adults was classed in 2008 as having a body mass index greater than 25, compared to only one-in-four back in 1980.

Experts see this as largely due to changing diets – especially to increased consumption of fats and sugar. One of the authors, Steve Wiggins, asked for more public health measures from governments: "Politicians need to be less shy about trying to influence what foods end up on our plates."

Italy against UK's food 'traffic light'

Fruit and vegetables (photo: source unknown)

The British government recommends eating five fruits and vegetables a day.

Britain has started labeling food products with a ‘traffic light' system, indicating to consumers how healthy the products are. The scheme is voluntary and shows shoppers how much salt, fat and sugar products contain and how much is recommended on a daily basis. The EU launched an investigation in February after other EU member states, led by Italy, complained that the scheme was unfair.

It's not the only field where the British government has become active in trying to promote public health. In 2002, it introduced ‘five-a-day' advice, recommending that people eat more fruit and vegetables. On Tuesday (01.04.2014), however, health experts from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University College of London (UCL) published a study, recommending seven a day. Based on a study with 65,226 men and women, lead investigator Dr Oyinlola Oyebode said: "The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die - at any age."

But Professor Naveed Sattar of the University of Glasgow was quoted by the BBC as saying that promoting a seven-a-day message would be "really challenging". "It would require governmental support such as subsidizing the cost of fruit and vegetables, perhaps by taxing sugar-rich foods, and making available high quality products to all in society," he said.

Info graphic showing obesity rates in EU countries (source: DW)

Out of all EU countries, Britain has the second-highest rate of obese citizens.

No e-smoking

Dietary habits are not the only field in Britain not left to individuals to deal with as they see fit. Smoking is, too. British regulators are interfering more than their counterparts in other European countries. On Wednesday, news broke that Wales looks set to soon impose a ban of electronic cigarettes in enclosed public places. Chief Medical Officer Dr Ruth Hussey was quoted by the BBC as saying: "On the seventh anniversary of the smoking ban, it is symbolic that Wales is once again at the forefront of a new set of radical proposals to improve public health."

Electronic cigarette (photo: Marcus Brandt dpa/lno)

E-cigarettes are considered less harmful than regular cigarettes, but are seen as an entry drug.

Britain could also soon force tobacco companies to standardize cigarette packaging. According to a government review, that move would help cut smoking rates. The law could come into force in May 2015.

Much like the traffic light food labeling scheme, the anti-smoking measures in Britain also go further than the laws set by the European Union. The new tobacco directive that was adopted this year allows the use of electronic cigarettes and makes graphic warning signs of a certain size on cigarette packaging obligatory for tobacco companies.

System too welfare-based

Steffen Hentrich from the Berlin-based Liberal Institute, a think tank with the libertarian Friedrich Naumann foundation, said the British government had to interfere more than others to keep costs down by keeping people healthy. "Britain's health system is thoroughly a welfare system," he told Deutsche Welle. "Britain therefore has to have a healthy population because every case of disease is an additional burden on the health system."

Hentrich believes the ‘nanny state' debate in Britain showed that it was time for Britain to overhaul the National Health System, under which health care is free for all, and costs are covered by society. "If costs were not shared by all there would be no reason to ban certain things or to regulate them," he said. "They would be as fat as they would want to be or smoke as much as they would want to – provided they could afford it". But, he added, such a system would require subsidies for the weakest members of society.

'Nanny state'

Britain is not the only country where the issue of how much state regulation is needed in public health continues to be a topic of debate. Other EU countries have had similar ‘nanny state' debates. Denmark abolished a so-called ‘fat tax', the German Greens lost voters' support ahead of national elections last year with calls to introduce a ‘Veggie Day' in Germany, and Italy has abandoned plans to introduce a so-called ‘junk food' tax.

There are also the opposite cases: when the people want politicians to ‘meddle' even more with public health. In Germany, according to a recent survey, most Germans would favor a total ban on drinking alcohol for drivers. Experts have long proposed lower alcohol limits, but so far, the politicians have not followed the recommendations.

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