British Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced that those individuals, who refuse treatment for their obesity, alcohol or drug problems, could have their sickness benefits cut. Such a statement appears to stem from a view that these individuals intentionally neglect themselves, and that punishing them will deter such behaviour in the future. The reality is very different.
We all know that obesity is the result of excess consumption of foods with a high content of sugar, salt and fat. Alcohol and drug addiction are often due to an individual’s desire to seek comfort and relief, perhaps to escape from difficult personal circumstances such as redundancy or losing a loved one. But it is the introduction to these foods and substances that is the real issue, and what is responsible for this? Advertising.
In the Western world, and now becoming increasingly common in developing countries, we are bombarded by billboard, television and newspaper adverts for all types of fast food burgers, alluring chocolates and “invigorating” tipples. You probably haven’t realised this as you go about your everyday life. Have you ever walked past a patisserie window without wanting to stuff your face with cake? Children are particularly prone to giving in to such advertising. If you give in to your senses and devour such unwholesome grub, you will be left wanting more. In fact, excess sugar and salt intake, in addition to alcohol and drug consumption, increase the activity of dopamine neural pathways in the brain, commonly viewed as a reward circuit in the brain. With this level of temptation surrounding us, it is no wonder that some individuals fall victim to a vicious cycle of cravings and bingeing, much like the addictive behaviour observed in alcoholics and drug addicts. In addition, the low cost of fast food makes it a more affordable option than healthier alternatives, for those who maybe struggling with their finances.
There also lies a cultural problem, particularly with regards to alcohol consumption. Alcohol is widely seen as an essential ingredient to engage socially, by abandoning one’s inhibitions and leaving behind the woes of life. Coercion from peers can often lead to one consuming alcohol when they are otherwise trying to abstain, or risk being excluded from the social circle all together. Moreover advertising by alcohol brands glamorizes beverages with the use of celebrity endorsements and images of partying hard. While many do drink responsibly in social environments, binge drinking is on the rise - which has been proven to have detrimental health effects such as brain damage in teenagers, and muting one’s immune responses to infection. And if an individual were to unexpectedly face difficult personal circumstances, they could see alcohol as a source of refuge – due to its ‘positive’ image - and attempt to drown their sorrows. The fact is alcohol will only provide temporary respite from such problems. It is not the solution, and so the despair deepens.
When we consider all of these points, it is clear that people suffering from addictions need help, punishing them by withdrawing their benefits is not productive in the slightest. It will only send them into deeper despair, exacerbating their harmful behaviours. These patients require strong psychological support from the health service as well as those closest to them.
We must also bear in mind that these patients may be suffering from other health problems that could be causing or complicating their health, preventing them from working and exercising, such as diabetes, arthritis or accidental injuries. In these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that obese individuals will refuse treatment. These patients require careful and rigorous management of their health, of which only qualified health professionals can provide.
This debate underlines the argument that good health is a human right. An individual’s personal choices and financial circumstances should not be detrimental to their health, especially when the environment surrounding them heavily influences such choices. Providing the best support possible for these patients can only be beneficial for the country, by potentially allowing them to return to work and contribute to the UK economy. On the other hand an oppressive approach, coupled with the reduction in quality and quantity of NHS services is neither beneficial for patients or the economy.
This piece was written for The News Hub. Please visit https://www.the-newshub.com/health-and-fitness/punishment-is-not-the-answer-to-health-problems and give it a vote up!
Dr. Anusha Seneviratne
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