Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chair of the Health Select Committee, delivers her damning verdict on the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy.
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 benefited 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.
This blog originally appeared on Dr Sarah Wollaston MP’s personal website, and has been republished with her permission.