The new generation of Scots who may die before their parents

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By Kenneth Roy

They returned to their desks, but not for long. Within a few hours they were re-released into the community, hunting in behaviourally-challenged packs for the first lunchtime fix of the new term. We are talking about our children and their self-destruct mission. It is not a pretty sight, though it makes steady work for the privatised street-sweepers who are occasionally on hand to hoover up the remains.

After a main course of Olympian self-glorification, followed by a supersize pudding of collective delusion, it is back to the grim reality of overweight school kids eating their way to oblivion. The childhood obesity epidemic hadn’t gone away after all. Its victims were just indoors on their hols, watching the games and getting porkier with each passing TV dinner.

The recent exhibition of sleek athleticism is about to change everything. We have our masters’ word for that, and our masters are gold medallists in exhortation; it costs so little. We may even have a National Press-Ups Day foisted upon us, sponsored no doubt by the government’s partners in physical jerks, McDonalds and Coca Cola. But the mid-day queue outside fast food outlets, as the starving children come down from the glens, suggests that the message from young consumers to the parliamentary PT freaks can be summed up in two words: fat chance.

There is all the consolation of a drizzled lettuce in the knowledge that Scotland is not quite alone here. Although there are many fewer obese children in most other European countries, south of the border the epidemiologists detect equally worrying symptoms. Indeed most of the current anecdotal evidence comes from England, a country in which the only mountains are man-sized.

Two in every five pairs of trousers sold at a schoolwear shop on Merseyside are a ‘sturdy fit’ with a waistband twice as stretchy as the normal gear. For the girls there is the option of 26-inch skirts. In Yorkshire, home of so many of the medal-winners, the same trend is reported. ‘Around 20 years ago,’ said a retailer, ‘an 11-year-old boy would almost always wear a blazer measuring 30 to 34 inches. Now they can go up to 46 inches. It is incredible’.

Four years ago, the children’s minister for England and Wales made himself unpopular by proposing that children under the age of 16 should be locked in the school grounds at lunchtime to discourage the suicidal rush to commercial tuckshops. Parents attacked the idea as ‘Orwellian’ – poor George, he gets the blame for everything – and subverted the few schools brave enough to introduce the scheme by shoving the required quantities of junk through the gaps in the school gates into the open mouths of their deprived offspring. Nothing more has been heard of such draconian strategies as lunchtime imprisonment. Instead we have Jamie Oliver, a cruel and unusual punishment in its own right.

In Scotland, three out of 10 children have a BMI (Body Mass Index) which is ‘outwith the healthy range’. Just as scarily, 21% of five-year-olds, in their first year at primary school, are officially overweight. Research shows that the number of obese children in Scotland is rising, that Scottish children are more likely to be obese than their English counterparts, and that childhood obesity – as well as obesity in general – is more common in deprived communities than it is in affluent ones.

The physical consequences of this epidemic, particularly in a relatively poor country such as Scotland, are devastating. Until recently type 2 diabetes was an adult condition, but it is now being diagnosed in overweight adolescents who may go on to suffer heart disease and strokes, to say nothing of kidney failure and blindness. There may also be an impact on mental well-being. Obese children (especially girls) are statistically more likely to be psychologically distressed than children who are not obese.

These facts ought to carry a government health warning. These facts can kill. But it seems no one is interested, least of all the children with the expanding waist lines. The top purchases at lunchtime are fizzy drinks, sweets, chips, and fried chicken. Out of 26 food types listed in a recent survey of the purchases of school-aged children, fruit and veg ranked 23rd. A breakdown of the nutritional values of the most common buys revealed that children are consuming ‘dangerously high levels of fat and sugar’ and there is evidence that girls are eating more unhealthily than boys.

It is eight years since Professor Phil Hanlon and five other public health specialists (Karen Budewig, Fiona Crawford, Neil Hamlet, Jill Muirie and David Ogilvie) produced ‘Obesity in Scotland’, an outstanding anatomy of the epidemic. They were pessimistic about the value of the popular remedies – dieting and health promotion – and made the valuable point that campaigns run the risk of worsening social inequalities in health. ‘….we could see an increasing polarisation of Scottish society into a well-off elite, who exercise at expensive health clubs and exhibit fashionable moderation at the dining table, and a less healthy majority who lack the money, opportunity or motivation to engage with the interventions we are offering’. Hanlon and his co-authors concluded that ‘we need to adopt a more ambitious idea of what an intervention to prevent obesity might be’.  Strong on analysis, the report offered no ideas of its own.

With obesity’s proven tendency to spread rapidly in adulthood, we face the possibility of a generation in Scotland many of whom will die before their parents. Yet the official silence on the subject, the continuing absence of ideas, is ominous. The Scottish Government took a lead in banning smoking in public places. It did so by infringing civil liberties. Orwellian, you might call that. But there is no hint of a similar lead on the big killer of the future, obesity which originates in childhood. It seems we are afraid to take the life-saving step of infringing the civil liberties of children. But it may have to come to that.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review