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Childhood obesity strategy: a missed opportunity

The Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on obesity, Professor John Wass, comments on the release of Childhood obesity: a plan for action, the government's strategy for addressing obesity in children.

Last week the government published its much anticipated strategy for tackling childhood obesity, at long last making good on a manifesto commitment made in the run up to the 2015 general election.

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), alongside our partners in the Obesity Health Alliance, had been clear that in order to tackle the childhood obesity crisis, the strategy must contain three key policy changes:

  • reduce overconsumption of the most unhealthy drinks by implementing a 20% tax on drinks with added sugar
  • protect children from the barrage of unhealthy food and drink marketing by introducing a ban on advertising before 9pm of products which are high in saturated fat, salt and sugar
  • hold the food industry to account for reducing the saturated fat, salt and sugar content of foods by introducing mandatory targets for reformulation, with independent monitoring and sanctions for non-compliance.

The plan is more notable for what is absent than what is included.

Professor John Wass, RCP special adviser on obesity

What we got fell far short of this. Instead of a comprehensive hard-hitting strategy, the government published a lightweight ‘action plan’, stripped of any bold plans beyond the tax on sugar-sweetened drinks (announced in the 2015 autumn statement and known as the soft drinks industry levy). The plan is more notable for what is absent than what is included.

The proposals for product reformulation lack teeth – a voluntary programme for industry with scant detail about what would be considered success and how non-compliance will be tackled.

The plan relies heavily on the promotion of sport and physical activity. Physical activity is of course essential for children as well as adults, but alone it cannot redress the balance of the sheer volume of excess calories being consumed by many children.

Much of the rest of the document was a rehash of existing measures and programmes, for example a vague commitment to look at food labelling and a nod to Make Every Contact Count, which aims to support the health and wider workforce to promote behaviour change.

As physicians, you know that radical action is desperately needed.

Professor John Wass

Critically the plan contains no reference to the need to protect children from the endemic marketing they are exposed to across all walks of life, from television to targeted games on the internet, leading to accusations that the interests of big industry have triumphed over the health of our children.

As physicians, you know that radical action is desperately needed. An obese child is five times more likely to be an obese adult. Obesity is related to a myriad of chronic and long term conditions including type 2 diabetes, cancer, and liver and heart disease. It limits both length of life and quality of life. It is also an issue of stark inequality that in 2016 children in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese as children in the least deprived areas.

Alongside incalculable human toll, the economic imperative for reducing obesity levels is just as compelling.

Professor John Wass

Alongside incalculable human toll, the economic imperative for reducing obesity levels is just as compelling. According to NHS England, the direct medical cost of obesity and related conditions amounts to £16 billion every year.

Making the changes needed to protect our children and change the obesogenic environment will not be easy. What’s needed is bold and brave, and requires strong political will, and the RCP will continue to work hard in the coming months to convince the government to deliver the ambitious agenda which the next generation deserves.

Follow @RCPLondon on Twitter and contribute to the debate using the hashtag #obesitystrategy.

On 28 September 2016 Professor John Wass will deliver a free lecture at the RCP on the subject of obesity.