Through all the political turmoil of the past few weeks and discussions about what Brexit means for Britain, one thing has remained consistently true - we need to take strong action on childhood obesity. The UK's very high levels of childhood obesity, dental decay and diet-related ill-health did not magically decrease after the Brexit vote.
Currently, more than one in five children in England are overweight or obese before starting primary school; this increases to one in three by the time they leave primary school. This puts them at greater risk of serious life-long adverse physical health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart and liver disease and associated mental health problems. These conditions devastate lives and cost the NHS billions to treat, putting pressure on an already stretched health service that is likely to face further uncertainty and workforce issues as we leave the EU.
This Conservative Government made a commitment in their election manifesto to tackle the problem of childhood obesity. Healthcare professionals, charities and campaigners have been waiting for almost a year for the Government to publish their Childhood Obesity Strategy which ministers repeatedly promise will be comprehensive and look at everything that contributes to a child becoming overweight and set out what more can be done by all.
For incoming Prime Minister Theresa May, publishing a bold Childhood Obesity Strategy is a chance for her to make good on her election promise to build a better Britain for everyone by committing to the future health of our nation and ensuring we are the first country to reverse the rising rate of child obesity.
Obesity is a complex problem and brave solutions are needed. The Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of over 30 charities, medical royal colleges and campaign groups, agree there are three key policies that must be in the Childhood Obesity Strategy to make it effective in significantly reducing childhood obesity rates: a reformulation programme; action on junk food marketing and a soft drinks industry levy.
1. A regulated reformulation programme to remove sugar, fat and salt from our food
Reformulation programmes can have a positive impact on reducing consumption of nutrients over time, e.g. between 2003-2011 salt consumption was reduced by 15% in the UK. We are calling for the Government to introduce a comprehensive and effective reformulation programme covering sugar, fat (particularly saturated fat) and salt which should include targets for industry to gradually reduce these nutrients from food. These targets should be measured, evaluated and time bound. This programme cannot be voluntary as we have seen from previous experience this doesn't work. There must be meaningful sanctions for food companies who do not meet these targets.
2. Introduction of a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising
Research shows that marketing greatly influences the food children choose to eat. This is why the Government previously acted to stop adverts for unhealthy food and drinks being shown alongside children's TV programmes.
However, there are loopholes in current regulations that mean children regularly see advertising for food and drink that is high in fat, salt and sugar. Research shows that children as young as 18 months can recognise brands, with recognition significantly higher for unhealthy brands than healthy brands.
A 9pm watershed on TV already exists to protect children from content which is unsuitable for a child audience. This should be extended to include unhealthy food and drink adverts to protect children at peak family viewing time.
3. Full implementation of the soft drinks industry levy
The OHA was cheered to see the announcement of a 'sugar tax' in March's budget. Essentially this is a levy paid by soft drinks manufacturers on the most sugary drinks. Sugary drinks are the biggest source of sugar intake for 11-18 year olds, making up 30% of their total intake.
If implemented effectively, the levy should encourage drinks manufacturers to take sugar out of their products and help children cut down on their consumption. Evidence from similar levies in France, Denmark, Finland and Hungary have has resulted in a drop in consumption. Data from Mexico also showed that purchases of sugary drinks fell by 12% at the end of the first year of a tax.
Some more progressive companies are making moves in the right direction. However we are also seeing multinational drinks companies mount attacks on the soft drinks industry levy and criticise calls for reformulation and restrictions on marketing.
We must act now to curb the current rising tide of obesity. Will our new Prime Minister be courageous enough to commit to bold and far-reaching action? For the sake of our of children's health, we hope so.
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