As Puerto Rico enters discussions for whether parents should be fined for failing to get their children to lose weight the rest of the world looks on and debates these controversial ideas
More than 600 million people, or 13% of the world's adult population, are currently obese, which is estimated to cost the global economy around $2tn (£1.3tn), including £47bn to the UK. Many national and local governments have tried and struggled to address these issues; in 2011 Denmark introduced a ‘fat tax’ on foods containing more than 2.3%, while France introduced the ‘Nutella tax’ in 2012, which quadrupled the tax on saturated fat-rich palm oil - but both schemes failed to make any real changes. As a result politicians in Puerto Rico have started to look at more drastic measures and have been discussing whether the government should be more involved with one of the perceived reasons for the growth in childhood obesity - irresponsible parenting.
If the legislation were to pass, teachers would be told to look out for and monitor students they think are overweight and then refer them on to a councillor, or in more severe cases, a social worker. Following this, it would be up to the parents to devise a fitness and diet regime for the child which would be monitored monthly. If there was no progress with the child after a year, a fine of £525 would be implemented.
While Senator Gilberto Rodriguez Valle supporting the scheme insists no humiliation of children will take place and families will be informed with confidence and education, the plans have come under fire by opposition in Puerto Rico who suggest that teachers acting as body police will further stigmatise those overweight and further perpetuate thinness as a status symbol.
Opposition to these ideas have also arisen in the UK, in particular with Andrew Hill, professor of medical psychology at Leeds University. “The causes (of obesity) are driven by environment. You live in an environment which encourages you to eat lots of food and discourages physical activity. To then apply a penalty to punish something that people have varying degrees of control over seems to be not just counterproductive but morally dubious."
“We need to move the argument away from saying it's all about individual responsibility and 'it's you to blame'. People do have some responsibility but we must recognise the power of environment and how difficult it is to change for the rest of your life," said Andrew.
Instead, it is argued that a system of reward rather than punishment should be introduced. "There's definitely room for thinking more about incentives, maybe some sort of rewards for losing weight, especially as obesity tends to affect the poor most,” says Peter Ayton, professor of psychology at City University."People respond to incentives and deterrents. There needs to be more discussion of what works," he said.