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Today, many young people are receiving their A-Level results.
But today also marks the long-awaited publication of the Government’s plan of action to reduce the staggeringly high levels of children’s obesity across the UK.
And after more than a year of waiting, it’s fair to say we’re extremely disappointed with the results.
Unfortunately, the 13 page plan lacks substance. You might even expect better quality from some A-Level essays.
In truth, it feels like many anticipated pages of the plan have been torn out and ditched in recent weeks.
But putting the marking to one side for a moment, there are some clear and worrying gaps in this plan. And the simple fact is that, as it stands, the nation’s children are being let down.
Children’s obesity matters
One in three children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. And an obese child is five times more likely to be an obese adult, putting them at risk of the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.
The children’s obesity strategy was first promised as a manifesto commitment from the Conservative Party before the 2015 General Election. The Prime Minister and Health Secretary talked of a “game-changing” strategy and recognised children’s obesity as “a national emergency”.
But delays followed.
First to Christmas 2015, and then past January and into the New Year. In the meantime, we made the case for concerted action on obesity and cancer. But the Government’s delays on publishing the strategy followed through into this summer.
Now the plan has finally been published, and we can see three crucial reasons why it falls short of the ‘game-changing’ strategy that was promised.
And worse still, there are some areas that aren’t acknowledged at all.
1. Despite the evidence, junk food marketing has been ignored
Junk food marketing is an absolutely critical influence on children’s weight. It affects what food children choose to eat and pester their parents to buy. It also increases their total energy intake and affects which brands they prefer.
Public Health England’s independent review of the evidence – which the Government said would inform its plans to tackle children’s obesity – backs this up, stating: “Available research evidence shows that all forms of marketing consistently influence food preference, choice and purchasing in children.”
Thousands of our campaigners are worried about junk food marketing – which is why they’ve put so much time and effort into pushing the Government to tackle it as part of our Junk Free TV campaign.
There is also widespread public support – with three-quarters of adults supporting a ban on junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed.
If the Government wants to make a difference, it needs to deal with how kids are bombarded with junk food ads.
Yet, this plan makes no mention of any marketing restrictions. As recently as last month, the Government said a strategy would look at “everything that contributes to a child becoming overweight and obese“.
So neglecting junk food marketing – one of the biggest factors in children’s obesity – is inexcusable.
We’ve been making this case loud and clear. And our recent research on the perceptions of junk food among primary school pupils brings home why this matters. It shows that junk food marketing:
- Makes children hungry and want to eat junk food,
- Creates adverts that children can remember in the supermarket
- Pushes them to pester their parents for it
What does this mean in reality? These two quotes are particularly poignant:
The plan cites “economic realities” as a reason for not going further. But with obesity costing the UK almost a billion pounds a week, and with a warning from the Chief Executive of NHS England that, if unabated, obesity could ‘bankrupt the NHS’, this reasoning is short-sighted.
2. The soft drinks industry levy is not enough
The strategy re-affirms a commitment to the soft drinks industry levy – often referred to as the ‘sugar tax’. This measure is very important to reduce rates of children’s obesity – as our research has previously found – and it must be kept. Children in the UK consume up to three times the maximum amount of sugar they should, and fizzy drinks are their number one source.
But a levy is one measure and that doesn’t make a strategy, particularly when it’s so clear the best way to reduce children’s obesity is to tackle it from all sides. As Sir Harpal Kumar, our chief executive, puts it:
Since the last General Election, the Government has championed the need for a comprehensive and robust strategy to tackle the growing obesity crisis, particularly for children. Today is a missed opportunity in that fight. The sugar levy alone isn’t enough to ensure children live long and healthy lives.
The plan also makes a commitment to “aim to significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next ten years”. But with no clear definition of what this means, or how such an ambition will be funded, it’s hard to see how the plan can be evaluated.
3. Physical activity is not the key to tackling obesity
The plan also seems to imply that the answer to children’s obesity is simply making children more active. Of course, exercise has an important role to play, but Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Prevention Expert, explains why it’s not the only solution:
Children taking part in sport is unquestionably a good thing – but physical activity isn’t the silver bullet that solves children’s obesity. A plan which doesn’t address junk food marketing will not go far enough to protect our children from a lifetime of poor health outcomes.
And the Behavioural Insights Team – an organisation owned by the Government – has shown exactly that, finding obesity is down to consuming too many calories and that: “Only an implausibly large reduction in physical activity could explain our weight gain” while falling levels of activity “do not provide the answer”.
Today’s announcement is full of warm words with no plans for enforcement. The plan contains many policies, including improving food in academies and reducing sugar by 20% in foods eaten by children. It even includes a ‘recommitment’ to an initiative that already exists. But nobody seems to be responsible for delivering them.
We need what was promised – our children’s health depends on it
The new Prime Minister is clear that we need to fight the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. And the most deprived children are most likely to be obese. Tackling health inequalities starts with our children and reversing the rising tide of ill-health caused by obesity.
This strategy is a missed opportunity 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 the Government promised a year ago.
Dan Hunt is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK
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