21 AUG 2016

Childhood Obesity; A Plan for Inaction

The childhood obesity strategy has been downgraded. The final paragraph sums up the tone that it will be 'respecting consumer choice, economic realities and, ultimately, our need to eat'. This crass statement entirely misses the point; of course children need to eat, but the childhood obesity strategy needed to make sure that they benefitted from a better diet.

Trying to capitalise on the feel good factor of the Olympics, the messaging has distorted the underlying evidence. Of course we need children to be more active but exercise matters whatever a child's age or weight. The key message on childhood obesity should have been front and centre about the importance of reducing junk calories with evidence-based action to match.

In completely removing whole sections from the draft strategy, it is hugely disappointing that the obesity plan puts the interests of the advertising industry ahead of the interests of children. The plan misses the opportunity to improve children's diets by reining in the saturation marketing and promotion of junk food. A staggering 40% of the food and drink we buy to consume at home is bought through promotional deals and the overwhelming majority of those deals are on junk food or alcohol. This was a missed opportunity to shift the balance of those promotions to healthier alternatives and to make them more affordable for those struggling on lower incomes. The plan has also completely failed to take junk away from the checkouts or restrict the hugely profitable end of aisle displays or deals flogging impulse purchases at point of sale. Responsible retailers wanted a level playing field in making those changes but their efforts will be undermined by the abject failure of the obesity 'plan' to recognise the impact of promotions and marketing.

Whilst it is good to see confirmation of the sugary drinks levy, the watered down obesity strategy is completely at odds with the pledge to tackle the burning injustice of health inequality. Even its title has been downgraded to 'plan' but it would perhaps have been better named a plan for inaction as even the proposals to reformulate are voluntary. Without 'teeth' voluntary reformulation looks set to be as ineffective as the miserable 'responsibility deal' which precedes it. Progress will be monitored against worthy but voluntary targets until 2020 but with no consequences for those manufacturers and retailers which put profits ahead of children's health.

Whilst all those in contact with children suffering from obesity are rightly urged to make every contact count in trying to help, they will be hopelessly undermined in their efforts. Big industry interests have been given free rein to continue to promote and advertise as they please including those that do so through online marketing masquerading as games or through the powerful use of cartoon characters on junk food aimed at children.

The confirmation of the increase in funding for school sport from a levy on sugary drinks manufacturers is very welcome but the levy will not come into force until 2018 and needs to be broadened to include all drinks with high added sugar content. The plan should also have given greater powers to local authorities to make changes to improve public health at local level. Especially at a time when their public health budgets are being cut, it was more important than ever to give them the levers to do the job by making health an objective in the planning system.

The gap between rich and poor children when it comes to obesity has widened every year since measurements began. One in four of the most disadvantaged children now leaves primary school not just overweight but obese, more than twice the rate for those from the most advantaged families. This plan for inaction will be remembered for its wasted opportunities, delays and spin when it could and should have been the opportunity to show that government is serious about tackling the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor. We will all be picking up the tab in the future costs of obesity for the NHS, already more than the police, fire service and judicial system combined, but no one will be paying a heavier price than the individual children facing a lifetime blighted by the consequences.

6 comments

As a constituent who didn't vote for you, I am glad to have ended up with an MP who will still speak up when she believes that the government makes such a big error as this. Cheers. A Smith Follaton, Totnes
- Andy Smith

Well said Sarah...I always said that you were one of the few decent tory mps. You're in the wrong party! Bravo
- Byron Jones

I fully agree! Short-term thinking continues to compromise the possibility of a better life for this and future generations, including threats to the planet generally, as outlined in a recent Press Release by the global One Health Commission...It really is time "to stop and think" what we are doing to ourselves, animals and the environment (i.e., One Health and Well-Being).The proposed One Health Commission education initiative might help to turn things around in due course: http://www.onehealthinitiative.com/publications/6-10-16 OH Education Press Release-Final.pdf
- George Lueddeke

P/try this URL re Press Release https://www.onehealthcommission.org/documents/filelibrary/commission_news/press_releases/61016__OH_Education_Press_ReleaseFi_F7644A48F9910.pdf
- George Lueddeke

The country has been waiting a long time for a national obesity strategy. It is therefore deeply disappointing that now it has finally arrived the government has not in fact published a strategy at all, not even a strategic plan for a whole system approach to tackling the obesity epidemic, but merely a lukewarm policy document that squanders both a critical window of opportunity and a wave of public support for bold and ambitious action. It needs to be judged more for what it does not include than for its timid plans to 'challenge' the food and drinks industry to reduce sugar content in some products by 20% over the next four years, to 'review' the 10 year old nutrient profile so that it can 'encourage' companies to make products healthier, to introduce a 'voluntary' healthy rating scheme for primary schools, and to launch a campaign to 'encourage' academies and free schools to commit to the new School Food Standards. The commitment to continued funding of the Healthy Start Scheme, and to ensuring that 30 minutes of physical activity is delivered daily in primary schools, assessed by Ofsted, are welcome. But the plan includes no mandatory actions (apart from the proposed levy on sugar sweetened drinks), either at national level or devolved to local government, that would have a strong and lasting impact on obesity. It needs measures such as mandatory reformulation of unhealthy foods; robust, mandatory restrictions on the marketing, advertising and promotion of high fat, high sugar food and drink; robust planning laws that would make unhealthy foods less accessible and journeys by foot and bike easier; major investment in physical activity infrastructure; or compulsory requirements for schools to tackle childhood obesity through the curriculum and whole school environment. This so-called ‘plan for action’ on childhood obesity gives the impression of a government that doesn't take the obesity epidemic seriously and prefers instead to prioritise the vested interests of some of the least healthy elements within the food industry. This is both morally questionable and economically foolish. We face a growing crisis of non-communicable diseases, already costing over £5 billion a year, and the chief executive of the NHS has warned that obesity threatens the sustainability of the health service itself. A comprehensive obesity strategy that imposes tough restrictions on the businesses that drive this huge burden of ill health is urgently needed but this ‘plan’ falls far short of this, and will fail to dent the crisis of non-communicable diseases that causes so much ill health and misery. London, and especially the more deprived parts of the city, is carrying a larger burden of child obesity than any other region in the country. The city has already taken action, locally and regionally to tackle this urgent public health crisis. We needed the national plan to take those actions that can only be taken at a national level. The only positive action to come out of the national plan, around schools, is already in place in London through the successful Healthy Schools London programme which reaches over 75% of schools and already means that schools are providing healthy food and physical activity to our children. London’s children have been let down by this plan.
- Danny Ruta

i would like to highlight a project started in WEST COUNTRY #milkandsarnies getting single pints of fresh milk out along side those sugary drinks offering a healthy alternative ..96% Fat free =full fat milk Great for bones and teeth putting milk next to the sandwiches in supermarkets..NeilParish another great west country MP ..is Twittering about this ALL is being done by suggestions at customer services by the public.. Milk v Fizz is simple 45p v £ plus cheaper too its filling the stomach so helping the need too snack ... look up #milkandsarnies better for rehyration too !!
- sylvia crocker

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