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“Frisked for Chocolate and Fizzy Drinks”

Posted Oct 15 2008 11:51am

by Rebecca Puhl

Efforts to reduce weight stigma appear to be needed in the UK as much as they are here in North America. Last week, health expert and Chairman of the Child Growth Foundation Tam Fry from the National Obesity Forum in the UK announced his idea that obese children should be removed from their families and placed into care, and that “those whose health is at risk should then undergo stomach-stapling operations.” Mr. Fry’s proposal that obesity should be treated as a form of abuse was presented at the National Obesity Forum’s annual conference last week. The National Obesity Forum is an independent charity, working to improve the prevention and management of obesity.

Mr. Fry, anticipating that his proposal would be unpopular and met with criticism, stated:

"My point will be that we regard malnourished children as being abused and so with those children who are so overweight, either consciously or by neglect because their parents allow it, there should be a case for them being removed from their parents to a pediatric ward and put under weight management by doctors.” He added “The parents will be permitted access but they will be frisked for chocolate and fizzy drinks when they enter the ward.”

It is concerning that a public health figure would make such stigmatizing and damaging comments, and surprising that such statements can be made without any scientific evidence to support that his proposed strategy would actually lead to sustainable health improvements in obese youth.

Even if Fry’s viewpoints aren’t taken seriously by his colleagues, his statements perpetuate weight bias, contribute to negative public attitudes and stigma, and do little (if anything) to promote public health. And while Fry argues that we should regard both malnourishment and obesity as a form of ‘abuse,’ some might suggest that his proposed solution of removing children from their families and putting them through significant stomach-stapling surgery is also mistreatment. Unfortunately, UK media reports have already documented recent cases of obese children being taken from their families because of their weight.

There are many more effective strategies to improve public health that do not induce stigma or impair quality of life for those who are obese. Instead of punishing parents and children, we need to change the environmental conditions that create obesity in the first place. This requires policies that make it easier for families to be healthy (e.g., providing access to affordable healthy foods, banning marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods to children, mandating healthy foods in schools, reducing portion sizes at restaurants, requiring calorie-labeling in fast food venues, etc). These are policies that will help, rather than undermine, parental efforts to feed children healthy foods. Some European countries are already making these kinds of changes. Perhaps Mr. Fry should be focusing on how similar strategies can be adopted in the UK, which would be much more likely to improve children’s health than his current misguided proposal.

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