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 councils and healthcare leaders 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 councils and healthcare bodies 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.

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, the LGA’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.

“Councils however can only do so much, which is why we have been campaigning hard for tough measures to be introduced by government.”

The Royal Society for Public Health agreed 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.”

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 British Medical Association (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.

The School Foods Standards will be updated in light of refreshed dietary recommendations and all academies will be encouraged to make a “clear commitment” to tackle obesity through healthier school food.

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.


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