Health

Vending machines 'undermine' hospitals' good work'

  • 23 September 2011
  • From the section Health
  • comments
Vending machines tend to dispense high-calorie food like chocolate

Hospitals are, by definition, buildings that are dedicated to health.

But in this week's Scrubbing Up, Dr Rachel Thompson, deputy head of science at World Cancer Research Fund, says that good work is being undermined by the contents of hospital vending machines.

Whenever I visit hospitals, I am always struck by how the efforts of the dedicated healthcare professionals who work in them are being undermined by what is happening in the waiting areas.

All too often, these waiting areas have vending machines that are filled with high-calorie foods and drinks such as chocolate bars, crisps and sugary drinks.

But because these foods are a cause of obesity, they are part of the reason many of the people will have ended up in hospital in the first place.

There is strong scientific evidence that excess body fat is a risk factor for cancer, as well as other non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

And yet hospital vending machines are selling products that are a cause of obesity at the same time as the health professionals working there are trying to cope with its consequences.

That is why hospitals should put an end to vending machines that sell high calorie foods and drinks.

Little focus

It is true that on its own this would be unlikely to have a serious impact on obesity levels.

You would have to spend a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms for the contents of the vending machines to make much of a difference to your weight.

But rather, the fact that hospital vending machines are filled with these kinds of foods and drinks is a symptom of how little meaningful focus there is on the obesity crisis.

Across society, big changes are needed if we are to address obesity and the preventable cases of cancer and other diseases that result from it.

The changes that we need are supported by common sense.

If you prioritise the needs of motorised transport when you plan a town, it is to be expected that people won't walk or cycle enough.

If you allow the food and drinks industry to market unhealthy products to children, then don't be surprised when children pester their parents to buy those products.

But the fact that hospital vending machines are still stocked with high-calorie foods and drinks illustrates that we are not recognising the problem.

There is no great mystery about what needs to happen.

There is already a large evidence base for what works and doesn't work when it comes to policy changes. What we need to see is political will and a change to the mindset where we tolerate the things that promote obesity.

This would not only mean the end of the kind of culture where the sale of unhealthy foods and drinks in hospital waiting rooms is seen as acceptable.

It could also mean fewer people end up in those waiting rooms in the first place.