Child Obesity Problem Looms Large in Britain and France

by Thilaka Ravi on Aug 6 2008 2:10 PM

To tackle the growing problem of child obesity, a French report Tuesday suggested imposing an anti-obesity tax on sweet and fatty foods, while British health officials want to avoid the label "obese" for very overweight children as it sounds offensive.

The French plan would target foods such as pizzas and hamburgers as well as sodas and alcohol.

Drawn up jointly by the French tax and social affairs inspectorates, the report was handed to Budget Minister Eric Woerth and his counterpart for health Roselyne Bachelot late last month, ministry officials said Tuesday.

According to Les Echos newspaper, it calls for the VAT sales tax rate to be lifted from 5.5 percent to 19.6 percent on all food stuffs considered "too rich, too sweet, too salty and which are not strictly necessary."

Meanwhile, health authorities in Britain rejected criticism of plans to use the word "very overweight" instead of "obese" in letters to the parents of schoolchildren.

Officials said research showed the term obese "shuts people down" and was regarded as "highly offensive."

Instead they have recommended that the alternative term be used for children whose body mass index (BMI) exceeds 30.

The National Obesity Forum accused the government of being "prissy" and "namby pamby" by avoiding the word.

The proposals are designed to tackle the growing problem in Britain of overweight children, but the letters will put the onus on parents to contact their doctors or school nurse if they want further information.

Parents will be informed of the child's height and weight and say whether they are underweight, a healthy weight, overweight or very overweight.

Will Cavendish, director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health, said there was a danger that parents would not react to the information at all if they received a letter containing the word "obese".

"We have not banned (the word obese) but we have chosen not to use it," he said. "There's no point giving them a letter that doesn't have any impact on their behaviour."

Tam Fry, a board member of the National Obesity Forum, however, said experts in the United States had also suggested banning the term obese but had now decided the word was necessary.

"The Americans have gone back to using the term because it's the kind of shock word that makes parents sit up and take notice. It's a nasty word but by God it should sound alarm bells in parents' minds.

"I find this whole approach from the Department of Health a bit prissy and namby pamby."

Two thirds of French men and half of all women aged 35 to 74 are thought to be overweight, according to a study released in June, while one fifth of all adults are obese.

France has taken steps to combat obesity in children with vending machines banned in schools since 2005.

A national programme in Britain now aims to weigh and measure children at age four to five and again aged 10 to 11, but parents can opt out of the process.