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Delaying the Fight Against Childhood Obesity Means We Risk Sleepwalking Into a Public Health Crisis

22/07/2016 15:13 | Updated 22 July 2016
Rui Vieira/PA Archive

The health of children should be a priority for any Government as a moral duty, but also for the very practical reason that the savings made by cutting their care will be eclipsed by the multiplied costs of caring for them in adulthood.

This couldn't be truer than today, as Britain faces a child obesity epidemic: one in five five-year-olds are overweight or obese, and this is projected to rise to half of all children by 2020.
The health crisis is triggering a financial crisis. Treating obesity and its consequences is now estimated to cost the NHS £5.1billion every year. It is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, which costs an incredible £8.8billion, almost 10% of the NHS budget.

In the face of this crisis, the government as part of its wider budget reductions, has made its biggest cuts to local public health, which includes local health visitors, child obesity programmes and school nurses. This is not only wrong-headed, but a scandalous false economy.

Labour warned the government when they cut £300million from the public health budgets that there would be consequences. And last week, the most senior medical minds in the country responded to the government in a letter that said cuts child health could cause a "significant impact on the future health of children", and that "obesity rates will rise and the associated health costs will spiral".

The government must heed these warnings and provide adequate finance to local public health, ensuring that the problems of today do not become the public health emergencies of tomorrow.
In May 2015, Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt promised to make tackling childhood obesity a top priority and committed to developing a national strategy to address the problem. But despite the Parliamentary Health Committee's conclusion of its inquiry childhood in November last year, the government has yet to respond with a strategy.

This Tory Government has failed yet again to keep its promises. They assured the public the strategy would be published in December 2015, then in March. A third deadline passed last week with no explanation until yesterday, the final day of the Parliamentary session.

As these delays continue British children remain the most obese in Europe, with a third of 10- and 11-year-olds in England overweight or obese.

I am deeply concerned about reports on leaked drafts of the strategy that say the government has removed key pledges to curb marketing of unhealthy foods to children and ban junk food at shop checkouts after lobbying by the food industry. We need real and urgent action from the government, not weak words to placate international food corporations.

The government's strategy should be robust and should address education, advertising and tax. Government departments should not be starved of the funds to implement it. In the same way local authorities should be financed to provide adequate health visiting services for the nutrition and activity of children.

Firms have a responsibility to properly label copious levels of fats and sugars and if they refuse so, they should face a fine. If foods are deemed to be too high in salt, sugar or saturated fat - it is not unreasonable for an advertising ban to be implemented before the watershed. Adding to that, there have to be additional precautions during the school day; a ban on high sugar drinks and snack dispensers from both schools and public buildings and a series of measureless and recommendations to improving levels of physical activity.

The fight against childhood obesity is among the most pressing priorities for our NHS. Britain must avoid sleepwalk into the public health crisis now faced by the United States. To do this, we must prioritise the health of our children over food industry lobbyists.

Diane Abbott is the shadow health secretary and Labour MP for Hackney North

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