POLITICS

Published: 03/06/2004, Volume II4, No. 5908 Page 19

When even the saintly Gary Lineker is berated by MPs for the money he has made helping fill kids with Walker's crisps, we are all in trouble.

The Commons health select committee's well-received report on obesity shocked me in a way few things do any more. It is a Fat Tsunami that could swamp the NHS. So, as HSJ's own cover story suggested last week, It is time the talking stopped.

But will it? Health secretary John Reid always sounds a tougher customer than most ministers who do their stuff on the To d a y programme, but even he realised he was sounding defensive when being lambasted by Green Party MEP for London Jean Lambert over cola and burger sales in school.

'I am not being Jesuitical about this, ' the health secretary said at one point when he suggested that the time to get people into good eating habits was before they are seven - just as the Jesuits said.

Mr Reid is a Catholic from a poor community in the industrial belt of Scotland, the kind of place, no doubt, where obesity has since become a problem. So he knows that of which he speaks better than do culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell and public health minister Melanie Johnson, both accused by the committee of naivety.

So when Mr Reid speaks of giving people 'informed choice' we must listen. But we also note he kicked serious booze and fag habits in his 50s. It can be done, though he does have a PhD. Most people do not. So we are entitled to be wary. As The Guardian showed this week, the food industry is a pretty tough and shameless lobby, with a powerful voice in Whitehall. That ad agency memo about getting sweets to kids without 'letting mum in on the act' was very disturbing.

Swimming pool rules (one adult per child is creeping in), the continuing sale of school playing fields, driving couch potato kids to school instead of making them walk - we are making a hash of it even before we buy them a single item of fat-and-sugar junk food.

Lord Tebbit, bless him, blames gay marriage.

Mr Reid's aides confirm that the public health white paper has now been postponed for further consultation and will not be out until the autumn. That will provide time for the new public health team (public health expert Dr Fiona Adshead has just been appointed deputy chief medical officer) to generate dialogue with primary care trusts, local media and 'excluded communities', ie the poor.Yeah, but what about action?

The committee has given the industry three years to get its act together. Tesco has made a good start. But there has also been predictable resistance to, for instance, traffic-light labelling of food fats. Sounds familiar.

I rang Kevin Barron, the Labour MP for Rother Valley who campaigned for years to replace voluntary restrictions on smoking ads directed at kids with statutory ones. The exminer says: 'I am not sure the voluntary approach is the right one' for fatty foods either.

I turned to committee chair David Hinchliffe, whom I found on his mobile as he gave the dog - and himself - a morning walk.

'I've already taken 4,897 steps today, according to my pedometer - That is half my daily quota, ' the burly ex-rugby player reported.

Even Charles Clarke, the even burlier education secretary, is wearing one now.Mr Clarke is sitting on the new Cabinet committee set up to take crossdepartmental action (seven departments were criticised in the MPs' report) ahead of the white paper, along with Mr Reid, Ms Jowell, deputy prime minister John Prescott, transport secretary Alistair Darling and even international development secretary Hilary Benn.

'Nothing is ruled in, nothing is ruled out, 'Mr Reid tells colleagues. But Dr Adshead is said to favour encouraging, not hectoring. I know diet is a tricky issue, but it still sounds vague to me. Let's hector a bit.

Mr Hinchliffe makes two interesting points not highlighted in coverage of his report.One is that it has been hard to get much data (so far) on the obesity implications of alcohol.He is no teetotaller, so he knows.

Second, where are public health professionals in the debate?

Then health and social services secretary Sir Keith Joseph shoved local medical officers of health, once famous figures, into health authorities in the 1974 reform. Even inside PCTs they remain marginalised in the NHS structure, he says. It is time to make them famous again.

Fight the Fat!