Think-tank warns that obesity and low productivity are linked in the UK

According to a new report, millions of obese people cannot work or are less efficient. This condition may explain the record-high rates of economic inactivity in the UK due to illness.

Think-tank Institute for Public Policy Research is urging the government to stop treating the obesity epidemic as an individual issue and instead focus on “working conditions, changes to the built environment, and our broken food systems” in order to reduce the number of severely obese people.

UK is the third most obese country in the OECD. One in four adults are affected. Only the US, Chile and Canada have higher levels. According to a report by Frontier Economics, an economics consultancy, obesity costs the UK approximately £98bn per year. This includes lower productivity.

The IPPR reported that since the coronavirus outbreak, the number people who are economically inactive because of long-term illness has reached historical highs. This makes it urgent to find answers.

Researchers found that areas with high obesity rates also had high levels of economic inactivity.

Jamie O’Halloran is a senior research fellow with IPPR. He said, “Poor health holds back the UK’s economy and obesity plays a significant part.” This epidemic is most acutely felt in the poorest areas of England.

IPPR revealed that four of five parliamentary constituencies in the North had the highest level of obesity and economic inactivity, while four of five in the South had the lowest.

Researchers found that constituencies like Wansbeck and Redcar in North Durham and Blackpool North, and Sunderland South had obesity rates exceeding 15 percent and rates of economic inactivity above 45 percent.

The IPPR study also showed a link between obesity and poverty. In the poorest parts of England, more than 3/10 adults are obese, compared to only 2/10 adults in the richest areas.

Researchers suggested that the exact link between obesity, and inability to work on the labour market, still needs to be uncovered. The researchers suggested that it could be the obesity that prevents them from working, but those who are economically inactive may struggle to afford healthy eating or exercise. This could be a mixture of both.

The economy suffered productivity losses as a result of the higher sickness absent rates for severely obese people.

IPPR’s polling found that more than half of respondents supported increased taxes (52%), and regulations (59%) on ultra-processed foods and drinks manufacturers. Less than 10% wanted taxes and regulations to be reduced.

O’Halloran called the government’s laissez faire approach to public healthcare “a failed experiment”. He said: “We must step in to regulate unhealthy foods, use taxes to make healthy food cheaper, and invest into the NHS, local authorities, and education to ensure that health is the cornerstone for UK prosperity.”

The government stated that obesity costs the NHS approximately £6.5bn per year. “We are taking strong action to promote healthier alternatives, and our landmark Soft Drinks Industry Levy is estimated to have prevented 5, 000 cases of obesity.”

The government also introduced calorie labels on menus and restrictions to prevent less healthy foods from being placed in the prime locations of supermarkets.

The plan will also help over one million people overcome barriers to employment, including those who have long-term illnesses associated with obesity.