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Childhood obesity – has the government missed a trick?

The government has launched its plan for tackling childhood obesity which has resulted in a largely negative response from experts and campaigners who say it does not go far enough.

The plan notes that nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese and the aim is to significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years.

The plan introduces a “sugar tax” on the soft drinks industry, with the ultimate goal of cutting sugar in products popular with children by 20%. In addition the government aims to:

  • Support innovation to help businesses to make their products healthier
  • Develop a new framework by updating the nutrient profile model
  • Make healthy options available in the public sector
  • Improve the co-ordination of quality sport and physical activity programmes for schools
  • Create a new healthy rating scheme for primary schools
  • Make school food healthier
  • Achieve clearer food labelling
  • Harness the best new technology
  • Enable health professionals to support families

However the language used is vague, and the way in which these goals will be achieved is unclear. The measures are voluntary, and critics have pointed out that the responsibility deal which was launched by Andrew Lansley in 2010, under which manufactures pledged to improve their practices has failed.

The plan could have gone further, taxing unhealthy food, banning advertising of foods high in sugar, fat or salt, limiting the number of fast food outlets near school and banning promotions such as two for one deals. Some of these measures were in the original draft of the plan, but have subsequently been dropped. By singling out sugar, the plan fails to address the issue in a holistic way.

Obese children are more than likely to become obese adults. The risks of obesity are well known and include coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and increased chances of developing diseases such as cancer. The proposed package is a step in the right direction, but unless meaningful action is taken to achieve long term change, we are sitting on a public health time bomb.

The estimated cost to the NHS on obesity related ill health in 2014/15 was £5.1 billion. Unless childhood obesity is tackled effectively, this entirely avoidable strain on resources will only increase in years to come.