In their new analysis, the three experts claim that the “severely limited” strategy is a “missed opportunity” for the UK government to show global leadership on child obesity.
“The draft version had been 50 pages in length, but the published plan ran to just 10 pages,” they noted, whilst “strong actions were conspicuous by their absence, and the desired discussion of anti-obesogenic medicine had been watered down to an emphasis on voluntary actions by industry, consumers, and schools”.
Professor Mark Hanson from the British Heart Foundation, University of Southampton, Professor Neena Modi, president of the UK Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and Professor of Neonatal Medicine, Imperial College London, and Dr Edward Mullins, a trainee in obstetrics and gynaecology, pull no punches in their assessment of the government’s strategy as they call for a rethink.
A tough regulatory approach would be much more effective, they argue, not least because it has worked for other public health issues. “The concept that obesity prevention is predominantly a matter of personal or parental responsibility has been particularly unhelpful,” the authors explain. Governments “should not hold back” from fiscal measures like taxes and new laws on marketing and packaging that have “brought enormous benefits to child and population health” when applied to the cigarette industry.
In January 2016, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) also backed a tax on sugary drinks, mandatory nutrient labelling and restrictions on marketing as effective ways to tackle rising levels of childhood obesity – and yet the recommendations failed to get a mention in the UK’s plan (published more than half a year later). Professor Hanson suggested policymakers had missed a trick given that proposals for a tax were already in place. “Had the government referred to the WHO report in its action plan, it could have claimed global leadership with this intervention,” he explained in an email to FoodNavigator.
Government hits back
Public health minister Nicola Blackwood called the criticisms in the new paper “inexplicable”.
“The authors call for a sugar levy, promotion of physical activity in schools and several other measures already included in our plan,” she explained, adding: “No other country in the world has set out such ambitious plans and six months in we are making significant progress, with many industry leaders already taking action to cut sugar in their products.”
Duncan Selbie, chief executive at Public Health England, also weighed in to defend a strategy that ignored some of his team’s principal recommendations.“The government’s childhood obesity plan is a good start on the journey to reverse child obesity,” he said. “It is quintessentially British to complain about what it does not include rather than focus on the significant action being taken. Let's implement the plan and start making a difference.”
The tax on sugar-sweetened drinks has already been included in the draft Finance Bill , published in December. Next month, targets for sugar reduction across nine food categories are expected. However, campaigners are already claiming that progress is too slow to meet the commitments in the government’s plan, as well as another set in 2011 (albeit under the previous Coalition) to “reverse the tide of obesity so the number of overweight or obese people begins to fall by 2020”.
Source: British Medical Journal
“Time for the UK to commit to tackling obesity”
Published online ahead of print, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j762
Authors: Hanson, M; Mullins, E; Modi, N.