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Bringing cake into the office as ‘harmful as passive smoking’

"Passive smoking inflicted harm on others and exactly the same is true of food”.

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Britain’s top food watchdog chief is warning that bringing cake into the office could be as harmful to workmates in the same way as passive smoking.

Chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Professor Susan Jebb, is urging doctors to be more willing to discuss a patient’s weight and offer dietary help, saying it was bad for the nation’s health that medical professionals “mostly ignore it”.

The professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford spoke personally and not on behalf of the agency, in which she argued that while the two issues were not identical, passive smoking inflicted harm on others “and exactly the same is true of food”.

Just over a third of adults are overweight in the UK, while a quarter (25%) are obese, according to obesity statistics from the UK parliament. By the time they start school, a fifth of children are already overweight, with most people in Britain now too heavy by the age of 25.

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Speaking to The Times, Susan Jebb said that it was not enough to rely on the “extraordinary efforts” of personal willpower needed to avoid overeating in a society that is constantly advertising junk food.

She said: “With smoking, after a very long time, we have got to a place where we understand that individuals have to make some effort but that we can make their efforts more successful by having a supportive environment. But we still don’t feel like that about food.”

Jebb urged medical professionals to warn patients when they needed to lose weight and offer them help in doing so.

“If a doctor comes across somebody with high blood pressure, they would feel, culturally, by training, by guidelines, by practice, that they must offer this patient treatment for their high blood pressure and explain to them why it was important,” she said.

“At the moment, if a doctor comes across a patient who is overweight, they mostly ignore it. The status in medicine comes from treating rare diseases with very expensive medicine and technology, and obesity isn’t either of those.

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The problem, she said, was to change a “culture in which people, health professionals, doctors, and particularly the sort of powerbrokers in the system, are pretty reluctant to go there.”

She added: “We can change that. We’ve changed it with smoking. It took a very long time.”

Professor Jebb then reflected on her comments and the research, emphasising that comments were made in a ‘personal capacity.’

“I want to make it very clear that the views expressed in The Times article are not those of the FSA Board nor do they reflect current or planned FSA policy in any way whatsoever,” she said.

“As The Times article points out I made the comments in a personal capacity and any representation of them as the current position or policy of the FSA is misleading and inaccurate.”

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The news comes as Tesco has partnered with a raft of retailers and suppliers to call on the government to take “meaningful” action to cut childhood obesity, after a series of backtracks on public health commitments.

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