The government’s long-delayed Childhood Obesity Strategy was eventually published last week – with ministers away on holiday and Parliament not sitting.
The government strategy has been delayed three times, and is a woefully inadequate response to the looming health crisis our country faces. No wonder the government wanted to sneak it out and ministers have failed to promote it.
The strategy includes providing an extra £10 million nationally for school breakfast clubs from the Soft Drinks Industry Levy. This amounts to as little as £1.28 per pupil per year. A weak response to a major national problem that will worsen for future generations.
The strategy also focuses disproportionately on physical activity. Sport and exercise are important for our mental health and for reducing the inflammation in our cells but has little impact in terms of reducing weight (exercise only contributes 10-20 per cent). What is critical is reducing the amount of sugar, fat and salt in young people’s diets.
Obesity, and particular childhood obesity, is one of the biggest public health challenges facing our country. Last year, the Department of Health spent £5.1 billion on obesity related illnesses. Obesity is ruining the quality of life for growing numbers of people.
Yet, rather than tackle the issue and ensure that food and drink companies improve the nutritional content of foods marketed to children, the government relied on a ‘Responsibility Deal’ with industry that was voluntary. It didn’t succeed.
I consistently warned the government in Parliament that it needed to face up to its failed strategy. You can read my exchange with the government’s then Public Health Minister by clicking here. Or watch it by clicking here.
The most recent statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre reveal that one in five children in Reception, and one in three children in Year 6, were measured as obese or overweight in 2014/15.
There are very serious and potentially life-threatening conditions associated with obesity, including diabetes and some cancer types.
We need a proper strategy to tackle the issue. One that is based on a comprehensive and broad approach that helps families, schools and children make the right decisions and supports healthy eating.
The last Labour government introduced a dedicated obesity strategy in 2004 – ‘Choosing Health’ – which included a target to halt the increase in child obesity for under 11s, as well as the Change4Life programme in 2009 to help promote and market healthy eating.
Today, we need more action on information, advertising and labelling. That is why at the 2015 general election I stood on a manifesto which pledged to set maximum permitted levels of sugar, salt and fat in foods marketed substantially to children.
The government’s soft drinks industry levy can only help tackle childhood obesity if it is part of a wider strategy that includes action on many other things.
We need real and urgent action from the government. I will continue to press the government to act when Parliament returns.