A young man named Colin Ord is featured in a BBC Online story plugging the Food Standards Agency's determination to be tough on the cause of obesity. They are, we are told, 'calling together a high-level team of chefs, nutritionists and advertising agencies to discuss whether more can be done to discourage children from eating the wrong foods.'
The hapless Colin Ord, who once weighed 33 stone at the age of 15, portrays himself as a victim of 'junk food' marketing, noting that one of the main factors contributing to his massive girth was "the way food was marketed towards my age group. You would see promotions on the television by fast food restaurants tied in with films, and you would get little toys, etc." Neither he, nor his mother apparently, was aware that these foods, eaten to gross excess, might damage his health.
The strange thing about this unconvincing manoeuvring to get us all to think that a ban on advertising the 'wrong' foods to children is a good idea is that it is based on a rather old story. We first learned about Colin Ord in the Northern Echo in August 2002 in an article about 'fat camps' – activity centres that help obese children to lose weight – and quite successfully so. The camp that Colin had attended, and from which he benefited by losing 7 of his 33 stones, was held in the summer of 2001. So why does the BBC think that a simple rehash of the story is relevant now?
The answer, presumably, is that Colin is 'on message' and prepared to plug the FSA's line for them. He says of the food industry, for example, "They are irresponsible in the way that they market food to young children. They are not making explicit just how damaging this food is." What he means by 'this' food, however, is a bit unclear. And now of course, he doesn't eat any fast food or chocolates and sticks more to organic food – which presumably can't make you fat.
All of this overt health correctness, however, singularly failed to impress most readers of BBC Online who were invited to comment on the story. Very few had much truck with Colin's view that it was the big food companies that forced him to be so fat. An unsympathetic reader said "To blame your lack of self control on the food industry is a weak excuse at best." Another commented that "to blame the marketing of food for your lack of self discipline is incredible. None of these marketers is sat pointing at food with a gun to your head." Colin's mum also came in for some criticism with one respondent observing that "if parents don't want to set limits, they shouldn't be surprised when their children turn out as self-indulgent and self destructive."
The wealth of common sense apparent in the comments made by detached members of the public contrasts very strikingly with the FSA's narrow and potentially unproductive attempts to find a culprit for the so-called 'ticking time bomb' of childhood obesity. It may be relatively easy to appear to be doing something about obesity by engineering a ban on adverts for sweets and burgers. But there is no evidence that ordinary mums and dads feel that this is a worthwhile exercise. There is even less evidence that it will achieve any significant change in children's eating habits. For that, a much more comprehensive programme is required, which includes recognition of the plight of working parents on limited incomes – those most likely to have obese children. And that is much less likely than the simple, cosmetic attempt at a fix.
8 January 2004