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The UK’s pick ‘n’ mix approach to children’s obesity is missing a trick

Category: Science blog August 18, 2017 Linda Bauld 5 comments

Credit: Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It’s a year since the UK Government published its plans to tackle children’s obesity. The announcement came after months of deliberating over the evidence and promises of tough action, but the plans simply weren’t tough enough.

A lot has happened since, not least a general election. But while the political landscape has changed, the UK’s shockingly high rates of obesity haven’t.

Despite setting a vague target to “significantly reduce” levels of children’s obesity by 2026, there are vital steps that still need to be taken to get there, including defining what ‘significantly’ really means.

The Government wanted its plans to be the “start of the conversation” about tackling children’s obesity. So what’s been talked about over the last 365 days?

Today, Public Health England has announced it will be taking steps to help crack down on the hidden calories in food and drink. It’s another step towards comprehensively tackling children’s obesity, the harms of which remain enormous.

Children’s obesity remains a big problem

Children’s obesity is one of the biggest health epidemics the UK faces. Obesity is the biggest preventable risk factor for cancer in adults after smoking, and an obese child is 5 times more likely to be obese as an adult.

Acting early provides the best chance of preventing disease in future, and yet 1 in 3 English kids are overweight or obese before they get to secondary school. This is a trend that could see obesity cause 670,000 cases of cancer in the UK in just two decades.

Full marks on fizzy drinks

The standout positive of 2017 has been the Government’s soft drinks industry levy – more commonly referred to as the ‘sugar tax’.

Despite only being part of a child’s diet, sugary drinks are a very important place to start in tackling obesity. Kids get more added sugar from these drinks than anything else, drinking an average of 1 can almost every 48 hours, or a bathtub a year.

The tax is based on the amount of sugar in fizzy drinks, and the cost is shouldered by drinks companies. With the profits from the tax being ring-fenced for school sport and breakfast clubs, it shows how this type of tax can be used as a force for good.

And even though the tax doesn’t come in to force until April 2018, it’s already producing positive results as companies anticipate its arrival. Drinks companies have begun tweaking their product range and offering a larger variety of low-sugar options, rather than face the penalty of the tax.

Hijacking hidden calories

In the last year the Government has also begun working with the food industry to tackle the sugary foods that children eat most, such as breakfast cereals and biscuits. They’ve set a voluntary target for companies to reduce sugar in some products by 20% by 2020 – a process called reformulation.

Today’s announcement from Public Health England takes these plans a step further. The Government has asked for a review of the evidence around the best ways to crack down on other hidden calories in our food, but we’re unlikely to know what the output from this will be until next year.

If it works, this approach will improve children’s diets. But sadly, past form on pledges between the alcohol industry and government, for example, suggests voluntary targets can easily fall flat.

The Government is still ignoring junk food marketing

Companies can make all the lower sugar sweets they like. But if kids are bombarded by adverts for them, large amounts will still end up in our baskets and bellies.

The evidence, including Cancer Research UK’s, is overwhelming. Junk food marketing affects the types of foods that children prefer to eat and buy. From how kids spend their pocket money to what they pester their parents for, adverts push children to like certain brands and foods.

With the sheer volume of junk food adverts children are exposed to on TV and online, and the tactics used to make them like the products, they don’t stand a chance.

The Government recognises that junk food marketing directly impacts children’s diets and obesity, but its rules to stop it don’t work. They haven’t been updated for a decade and are riddled with loopholes.

The biggest problem is that the rules wildly misrepresent how children watch TV. While ‘catch up’ and family shows have boomed, junk food ads are only banned on so-called ‘children’s channels’.

Of the top 50 shows that children watch every week, evening and ‘prime-time’ TV programmes consistently lock out the top spots. Meanwhile, those children’s channels barely get a look in.

One extra change beyond the Government’s plan was an effort to cut down on the amount of junk food advertising online. It’s a good idea, but we’ve still got no answers on how the changes will be evaluated. With so little data available, it’ll be really hard to know if children continue to see adverts they shouldn’t.

Given such blatant problems, our approach to junk food ads are far from being “among the toughest in the world” – a claim the Government made just last week. Kids from Finland, Norway, Canada and Sweden – who are all much better protected from junk food marketing – would probably disagree.

Most frustratingly, the Government’s failure to tackle junk food ads is jeopardising its good progress in other areas. We’re working hard on research to help make the case to change that, and to bring us closer towards that all-important goal of fewer obese children.

Pick ‘n’ mix politics

When it comes to improving children’s obesity, the UK won’t make enough progress by picking and mixing its approach.

Tackling children’s obesity needs to be done properly, otherwise we stand no hope of significantly reducing rates over the next decade. The last year has shown that progress can be made, but protecting children from junk food marketing will help us do better.

Just as it was a year ago, inaction isn’t good enough.

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s cancer prevention expert based at the University of Stirling