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Childhood obesity strategy savaged for ‘glaring omission’ of key targets

The government’s long anticipated – and much delayed – childhood obesity strategy has already been harshly criticised by healthcare leaders and councils for its “glaring omission” of many of the “key planks which an effective and comprehensive strategy would contain”, including measures to tackle junk food advertising and marketing.

The strategy, which was delayed several months partly due to government preparations for the EU Referendum, was published today by the Department of Health and branded “the start of a conversation, rather than the final word” – despite ministers arguing they are “clear in our goals and firm in the action we will take”.

But healthcare bodies and councils have not taken kindly to the strategy, which, at 13 pages in length, includes 14 points of action to tackle Britain’s obesity epidemic – including introducing a sugar levy on producers, a target for primary school physical education, and clearer food labelling.

The Royal Society for Public Health argued that the plan falls short of what was needed, despite welcoming a number of its elements. But it believes the strategy “risks being undermined as many of the key planks which an effective and comprehensive strategy would contain are absent”.

Its chief executive, Shirley Cramer CBE, commented: “If we are to stand any chance of reversing the shocking rates of childhood obesity, it will require hard hitting action on many fronts. It is of course welcome to see further investment in school sport and that Ofsted inspections will now take into account how schools support their pupil’s health. 

“However, it does feel like several pages of the plan are missing; there is a glaring omission around any measures to tackle the aggressive marketing of junk food – on TV, online, and through sponsorship and price promotions. Such marketing and promotion was identified as a critical area for action by Public Health England (PHE) in its sugar reduction report last year. 

“It is therefore extremely disappointing that these evidence-based recommendations have been dismissed.”

Sir Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, called the government’s decision to ignore potential restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods “inexcusable”, adding: “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.”


Cllr Izzi Seccombe, the Local Government Association’s portfolio holder for community wellbeing, said councils had always called for “fundamental reforms” to tackle the growing problem of obese children, such as mandatory reduction of sugar in soft drinks, better sugar labelling on products, calorie counts on menus in chain restaurants, and for local authorities to be given powers to ban junk food advertising near schools.

“We believe that these measures, which would help to promote greater individual responsibility, could help to significantly reduce childhood obesity,” she said. “It is disappointing that a number of these key asks have not been included in the plan and we will continue to press government for them to be introduced.”

Cllr Seccombe argued councils will have spent more than half a billion pounds tackling obesity since they took over public health duties three years ago, and recent cuts to the public health budget will “make this task harder”.

“To help plug this gap, we would like to see money raised from the planned levy on soft drinks to go to council public health teams, who are best placed to work in partnership with schools, nurseries, parents, businesses, the NHS and voluntary community sector, to make best use of the money and reduce child obesity,” she added.

Points of action in the strategy

The headline plan within the strategy is the need to introduce a soft drinks industry levy, which will raise money that will then be reinvested in programmes to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity and balanced diets for school children – such as by doubling the primary school PE and sport premium and injecting another £10m a year into school healthy breakfast clubs.

Producers and importers will have two years to lower the sugar content in their drinks before they have to face the levy. The Treasury is consulting on the technical details of the soft drinks industry levy over the summer and will legislate in the Finance Bill 2017.

The Department of Health will also launch a “broad, structured sugar reduction programme” led by PHE to remove 20% of sugar from the products children eat the most by 2020 – a move which the BMA dismissed as “pointless”.

“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,” the BMA’s board of science chair, Prof Parveen Kumar, argued.

PHE will also advise central government on setting targets per 100g of product and calorie caps for specific single servings, with the four-year, category-specific targets expected to be published in March next year.

Other points in the plan include supporting innovation in science and technology to help businesses make their products healthier; developing a framework by updating the nutrient profile model; making healthy options available in the public sector, from its leisure centres to hospitals, by working alongside councils; and continuing to provide support with the cost of healthy food for those who need it most.

Focusing on the children themselves, the strategy will incentivise primary schools and parents to offer at least an hour of “moderate to vigorous” physical activity a day, with PHE developing advice for schools for the 2017-18 academic year.

The County Sports Partnerships will also work with National Governing Bodies of sport, the Youth Sport Trust and other national and local providers to ensure every primary school in England has access to a co-ordinated offer of high-quality sport programmes from September 2017.

A new voluntary healthy ratings scheme will be launched, also in September next year, to “recognise and encourage” primary schools’ contribution to preventing obesity. This scheme will be taken into account during Ofsted inspections, and in 2017 the regulator will undertake a thematic review on obesity, healthy eating and physical activity in schools.

Families will also have access to clearer information about the food they’re buying, including a breakdown in what sugars are in a product. The Department of Health argued the UK’s decision to leave the EU will help in this by giving “greater flexibility” to determine what information should be presented in packaged food.

Other points of action and further information can be accessed in the strategy.

(Top image c. Gareth Fuller, PA Wire)


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Sam   01/09/2016 at 09:32

The sugar tax on soft drinks is a good start, however not nearly enough has been done. Refined sugar should be treated in the same manner as alcohol, in that a moderate amount could be considered okay (although a moderate amount of alcohol is often thought beneficial for one), however excessive consumption is a health hazard. We tax cigarettes and alcohol and should do so, across the board, for sugar and like products, such as corn syrup. A fund should be put together for local health authorities/commissioners, in whatever form they take over the coming years, to invest significantly in health education and everyday practices, such as dieting and exercising, and although targeted at children, it should not necessarily be exclusively for them. After all, if parents could participate in healthy, locally run activities, it would provide a positive structure for young people to do the same. This investment would pay off in the future in the need to treat less preventable diseases. The financial effects could be modelled into current assumptions for the long-term future, with some form of credits used in current accounts for spending on specific initiatives - like a tax deduction, used to provide incentives for individuals - to encourage local authorities and NHS providers to invest now in real preventative actions. More could be done at the other end to lessen the costs of fresh and healthy food for those in poorer circumstances. In the world today, it is the wealthy who are thin and the poor who are ‘fat’. One way to help stop people from buying fast-food is to increase its price, making healthier options more competitive (as well as assisting through subsidies or alike); another is to ensure that these basics are taught to students from the lower years, and throughout, at school and ensure the school then practices what it preaches when it turns out lunch to its students. Education and habit forming activities while young people develop will do more than restricting marketing campaigns and locations of places: the ever developing information revolution and delivery infrastructure will solve the problems of these restrictions quicker than they can be implemented. This all needs to be paired with a cultural shift, through education and media reinforcement, to more positive views of body image. It is a balance between recognising the health benefits of being in shape, but understanding that 'shapes' will be different from person to person and time to time. A balance needs to exist between recognising who one is and who one could be, coupled with a positive self-worth. There is an all or nothing approach to body shape at present that needs balancing out with proactive, long-term vision of healthy living and a sugar tax is, at least, a good start.

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