LONDON, March 20, 2009 — -- The Chawners seem like any other family of four. They enjoy watching soap operas in the evening, and daughter Emma,19, and her father like cooking the odd meal now and then.
But typical they are not: With a combined weight of 1,160 pounds, they are all considered extremely obese, with myriad related health problems.
The family, from Lancashire, England, has also been the focus of heavy criticism, as they live exclusively on $26,000 of yearly, tax-free medical benefits.
In an interview with Closer Magazine this week, Philip Chawner, 53, a former truck driver, claimed that his diabetes was causing him to fall asleep behind the wheel. His wife, Audrey, 57, volunteered at a disabled children's clinic but her epilepsy prevents her from leaving home.
They live in a two-bedroom, government-sponsored apartment that costs $50 a week. A typical diet included bacon sandwiches, known as "bacon butties," and "microwave pies." A typical day involved turning on the television in the morning. Husband and wife weigh 336 pounds each. Emma weighs 238 pounds.
Soon after the interview was published, subsequent news accounts referred to them as the "free-loading family" and "the real telly-tubbies," among other things.
But daughter Samantha Chawner, 21, did not think the articles were fair at all. She said that the description of their lifestyle was false. For example, they do not solely buy junk food but try to buy fruits and vegetables as well, as much as their budget allows, she said.
"It was full of lies. We thought they [Closer] were doing an article about families on benefits that were looking for jobs. We didn't know they would write such horrible things," she said.
What she does reiterate, however, is that their weight prevents them from getting the jobs. At 252 pounds, the aspiring hairdresser said she has applied for more than 500 positions and most of them fell through. "I got an interview with a couple of them," she said. "But they all turn me down. They can be quite mean about it."
She also receives unemployment checks from the government every two weeks, worth around $100 each.
While being overweight or obese does not necessarily mean a person is not able to work, Carla Wolper, a nutritionist at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, pointed out that the accompanying health problems, pain and fatigue, can be debilitating.
"When people get very obese and they're older, arthritis or pain in their knees or back may kill them," Wolper said. "They sit around more, so their muscle mass shrinks. If they have sleep apnea they wake up gasping for breath hundreds of times during the night. ... All of these things combine -- pain, shortness of breath, fatigue -- and many of them ultimately can't move around anymore."
Samantha Chawner was careful to mention that her parents spend their days doing house chores, and taking care of their 3-year-old niece. "My dad would like to work again but he can't," she said. "His legs are swollen and he can't walk around. That is why it is hard for him to exercise. He has to be careful about his diabetes and he feels weak a lot."
Public opinion toward the Chawners varies wildly. "It all depends on them, does it? I guess if they have exhausted their choices, then all right," said Pablo, a local Londoner who didn't give a last name. "But, if they are just being lazy, it's not fair on the taxpayers."
Another Londoner, Tina, who also didn't give her last name, was less forgiving. "Laziness. Maybe the parents, but the daughters -- no one could be that fat just by genetics," she said.
"They should exercise, even if they are busy. I work too hard to pay for their pies," she said.
Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical College Weight Management Center, agreed that genetics does not play as much of a role in obesity as nutrition education.
"At face value, everyone will say, 'Just push away from the table and run around the block. What's the problem?'" Fernstrom said. "But people may not have a lot of nutritional knowledge."
And nutritionist Wolper said it would be hard for a single person to lose weight if everyone continues to live in the same environment.
"The entire family has to agree to work with professionals" to lose weight, Wolper said. "Family conventions and family traditions around food and eating mean they are caught in this trap. ... It's like a drug addict who is trying to quit living with three drug addicts. When an attractive substance is nearby, it is difficult to ignore it."
The Chawners are only one of multiple stories that are indicative of the growing trend of obesity in England.
According to one 2009 NHS report, obesity has doubled in the past 15 years. Health conditions related to obesity, such as diabetes and liver disease, have also risen, putting pressure on the local medical resources. Heart disease alone cost all British taxpayers a total of more than $40,000 in lost productivity and health expenditure in 2006.
And economics is not on the Chawners' side. While there can be cheap ways to be healthy, such as buying local, seasonal or frozen produce, and finding low-cost or free weight-loss groups locally or online, the crumbling global economy still means fierce job competition. And studies have shown that prejudices against overweight people could prevent someone from being hired for a job for which they may be qualified.
"It's one of the last acceptable prejudices," Fernstrom said. "That [obese people] are lazy, that they don't try hard, that they're not intelligent."
As for getting government money during the recession, Audrey Chawner said that it was a necessary cost. "We are making by with what we have," she said. "I recently just got out of the hospital. I've been in a coma before because of my epilepsy."
"I only spend money on groceries, the phone bill, and the petrol to drive my daughters to job interviews," she continued. "We live on medical benefits, because we need it, not because we want to. We don't wish to be fat."