At last month’s Directors Club, Public Health England CEO Duncan Selbie sparked off a lively discussion by calling on the the UK eating out sector to do more to help the public tackle the obesity epidemic. In this open letter to MCA readers, he explains why.

When we think about good health, the majority of us think about our NHS and the care we get through hospitals and GPs. But the NHS of itself cannot improve the health of the nation and this depends more importantly on a prosperous economy and the lifestyle choices that we make as individuals and families.

The most important contributions to a life in good health are to have a job that provides a sufficient income, a decent and safe home and a support network. More simply put – a job, a home and a friend.

There is a 19-year difference in years spent in good health between the most affluent and the poorest and we see the effect of this at all stages of life, starting with our children. Prosperity shared broadly across all communities is how nations improve productivity with health and wealth being two sides of the same coin.

There is obviously a moral argument for caring about this, but there is an even more evident economic one. For children, what matters to their future economic prosperity is to have the best possible start in life and to be ready to learn when starting school. For young people entering adulthood it is to have something meaningful to do in education, training or employment. For adults it is to have a job and when unwell, to be able to keep that job and if not in employment, to get a job.

The next most important factor affecting our health is the lifestyle choices that we make, with around 40% of early deaths and poor health being preventable. The four biggest risks are whether we choose to smoke, what and how much we choose to eat, whether we exercise and how much alcohol we drink. Of these, obesity and smoking are competing for the top spot.

The out of home sector is a big player in all of this – your industry is employing hundreds of thousands of people and is a key part of local communities and everyday life, and so the contribution you make to good health is huge. Conversely, as the out of home sector grows each year, so do our waistlines, and this is where we need your help.

In England right now more than a third of children are overweight by the time they leave primary school, up from a quarter at age five. This means they have an increased chance of being overweight or obese as adults and at higher risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The work that PHE is leading on calorie, sugar and salt reformulation and reduction is not about telling people what to eat or restricting choice, but about making the healthy choice easier and actually widening the available choices. Consumers are asking for this – especially parents, who no longer eat out or on-the-move only as a weekend treat, but as a day-to-day part of their diet.

We are grateful for the positive interaction we have had from the sector and we want to keep this dialogue open, and we particularly want to hear from those who are yet to engage. The commitment, leadership and creativity already shown proves that it is possible to drive healthier choices while staying fiercely competitive.

We genuinely understand, because we listen hard about the many pressures on business, but we have a common interest in a healthy, working population and these need not be in conflict. Without action from everyone, we will need to build more hospitals and UK productivity will stagnate from the inflation of our waistlines.

Editors Note: Should anyone from the eating and drinking out industry wish to respond to this open letter, MCA would be interested to see it. Please email your thoughts to the editor of MCA at: or write to James Halliwell, MCA Editor, William Reed Business Media, Broadfield Park, Crawley, West Sussex, RH11 9RT