Wasted opportunity to tackle childhood obesity

Health experts in the UK have widely condemned the Government’s new childhood obesity plan as a wasted opportunity to protect the next generation from serious diseases like cancer and to reduce the crippling burden of obesity on the NHS.

The new plan (Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action) includes a voluntary target for food manufacturers to cut sugar in children's food and drink by 20%, and a drive for every primary school child to exercise for an hour a day.

Sugar Tax

The government’s measures, centre on the “sugar tax” announced by the Government in March and rely on voluntary action by the food and drink industry to reduce sugar. The industry, which has lobbied hard against regulation for months, has undertaken to reduce by 20% the amount of sugar added to products such as cereals, desserts, yoghurts and sweets. The strategy document makes clear that manufacturers that reduce sugar in their products will escape the sugar tax, which is not due to come in for two years.

The money accrued by the levy on sugary drinks will go to fund breakfast clubs and sport. Schools will be asked to give pupils an extra 30 minutes a day of physical activity, and parents and carers will be encouraged to get their children moving for a further 30 minutes.

A third of children leaving primary school are overweight or obese and at risk of a lifetime of serious health problems including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In light of this Public Health England (PHE) were tasked with investigating the issue and making recommendations on what should be done. PHE backed a sugar tax and reductions in sugar content of foods but prioritised two other measures:

  • Banning price-cutting promotions of junk food in supermarkets, such as multipacks and buy one get one free, as well as promotion of unhealthy food to children in restaurants, cafes and takeaways.
  • Restricting advertising of unhealthy food high in salt, fat and sugar to children during the scheduling of family TV programmes, as well as on social media and websites.

However, neither of the measures are included in the new strategy, which has been widely condemned by health experts and campaigners.

Children facing rising tide of ill-health in future

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “The government had a chance to protect the next generation from diseases like cancer and reduce the crippling burden of obesity on the NHS. We need the game-changing strategy it promised a year ago. As it stands, our children will witness a rising tide of ill-health from obesity well into the future.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the plan omitted many measures backed by health experts, such as curbs on TV advertising and cheap deals on junk food.

Professor Parveen Kumar, chairwoman of the BMA's board of science, said the government had "rowed back on its promises by announcing what looks like a weak plan rather than the robust strategy it promised".

"Although the government proposes targets for food companies to reduce the level of sugar in their products, the fact that these are voluntary and not backed up by regulation, renders them pointless," she said.

The Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of 33 charities, medical royal colleges and campaign groups, said the plan fell "disappointingly short of what is needed", with some anticipated measures "significantly watered down or removed entirely".

Councillor Izzi Seccombe, of the Local Government Association, said it was "disappointing" that a number of measures it had called for - such as for councils to have the power to ban junk food adverts near schools - had not been included.

And Prof Neena Modi, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the long-awaited strategy provided "no bold action and instead relies on physical activity, personal responsibility and voluntary product reformulation".

The British Dental Association also reacted angrily, accusing the government of having a "relaxed attitude" about persistent inequalities in health.

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