The Childhood Obesity Strategy has received a lukewarm response from nurses, campaigners, lobbyists and doctors across the country, with many declaring it “weak”, “disappointing”, a “missed opportunity” and “pointless”.
This long-awaited document, Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action (delayed for over a year), has set out measures to encourage healthier eating and more physical activity in schools, alongside a 20% tax on sugar. However there appears to be a worrying lack of detail stressing the importance of the first 1,000 days (from pregnancy to two years) in preventing obesity. If a woman is encouraged to eat healthier then the evidence is increasingly there to prove that this will be beneficial not only for the mother, but also for the child.
The campaign, coordinated by Public Health England, will initially focus on the foods that make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intakes, such as breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, pastries, puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads. However the industry’s involvement in the campaign will be voluntary, and only if it fails to reach the targets set will the Government consider using “other levers”.
This has angered many, not least Sarah Wollaston MP, chairwoman of the Health Select Committee on childhood obesity, which recommended some brave and bold measures earlier in the year via its enquiry. She is reportedly disappointed that “whole sections” of the draft were dropped before publication. She said (via Twitter): “In downgrading the obesity 'plan' many important opportunities have been lost to improve children's diets and tackle health inequality.” She added: “Big interests have trumped those of children in dumping advertising and promotion from the childhood obesity strategy.”
The Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of 33 charities, medical royal colleges and campaign groups, endorsed Wollaston’s view that some anticipated measures were "significantly watered down or removed entirely" and said the plan fell "disappointingly short of what is needed".
Prof Neena Modi, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, added her voice, saying the strategy provided "no bold action and instead relies on physical activity, personal responsibility and voluntary product reformulation".
She added: "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."
Sharon White from the school nurse association SAPHNA called it “a huge missed opportunity particularly in the use of school nursing in their unique public health role for children and young people”. Councillor Izzi Seccombe, of the Local Government Association, added that 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.
Paul Gately, Professor of Exercise and Obesity at Leeds Beckett University and founder of weight management provider MoreLife, said: “Whilst I welcome the publication of this strategy, it clearly doesn’t go far enough. To put it into context, diabetes costs the NHS about £7.7 billion a year and they invest around £2.2 billion. Obesity however costs the NHS £6.1 billion, yet the investment is only around £30 million! This stark difference is so significant and for me, this is a strategy of inaction, not action.
“What I find frustrating is that this strategy writes off one in three of our children already; there is not one mention about the third of our children that will die young because of their weight. What it does talk about is food and activity, but what it fails to address is that drive to those behaviours – mental health, social factors and economic factors. These children’s parents live within a cultural environment that drives obesity, which government has a responsibility for and has not done that through this document and has not delivered on its responsibility.”
The National Children's Bureau also published a statement on the strategy. In it, Chief Executive Anna Feuchtwang said: "Obese children not only suffer the consequences of ill health while they are children, but they are also more likely to be struck down with conditions such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes as adults. Now, at last, we have a plan for reducing obesity early in life. Introducing a new sugar tax and reducing the amount of sugar in foods should help reduce the scandalous level of unnecessary sugar that we eat and help children and their families to choose a healthier diet.
"'But the money raised from the sugar tax must be used to shore up recent cuts in public health spending so we can encourage more children to understand how the food they eat affects their health. This strategy undervalues the role of local authorities in improving public health and could do more to fully utilise health professionals like health visitors and school nurses, who can play an important part in tackling obesity.
"Controlling how advertising and promotions are used to entice children and their families to choose unhealthy foods could have further supported public health initiatives. The Government’s failure to stop aggressive marketing tactics used by the food and drink industry could undermine efforts to reduce childhood obesity. Research published in our report Poor Beginnings shows how obesity in young children is linked with deprivation and urgent action is needed to narrow the gap in health outcomes between children living in rich and poor areas."
We want to hear from you. Send us your thoughts on the Childhood Obesity Strategy to firstname.lastname@example.org. A range of our readers' views will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Family Health.