GP experts have slammed the Government’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy, published today, for lacking in substance.
The much-delayed plan will see the food and drinks industry ‘working towards’ lower sugar content in products often consumed by children, but the Department of Health has set out no sanctions that they will face if they do not achieve the aim.
The long-term goal is for a 20% reduction, including a 5% reduction in year one, with Public Health England to publish a six-monthly update into their progress.
The strategy said: ‘To ensure that the achievement matches expectations, progress will be reviewed by PHE who will publish interim reports on progress every six months. This will include reviewing reductions achieved through analysis of sales data and food composition data along with plans for further reductions.’
The document does say that unless there has been ‘sufficient progress by 2020’ it ‘will use other levers to achieve the same aims’.
The strategy further ‘asks’ primary schools to ensure children get 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical exercise a day, with parents and carers asked to ensure they get another 30 minutes.
Money raised from the new tax on sugary soft drinks, announced in last year’s Autumn Statement, will double the PE and Sport Premium to primary schools and boost funding for school breakfast clubs by £10m.
The only section relating to health professionals in the strategy says: ‘We are asking health care professionals to build on the good work they already do by always talking to parents about their family’s diet, working towards making it the default to weigh everyone, referring people to local weight management services, clubs and websites if they ask for more advice.’
But Professor David Haslam, a GP and the chair of the National Obesity Forum, said today’s strategy was a ‘watered down’ version of what health experts had called for, and which would fail to achieve what it set out to do.
He told Pulse: ‘This strategy is much anticipated, ever since [health secretary Jeremy] Hunt promised a robust and hard-hitting effort to genuinely help childhood obesity.
‘This will not succeed. It is weak and watered down, relies on restating old policies, and carries all the hallmarks of food and retail industry interference. Where does it ban sweets at checkouts, and fast food outlets near schools?’
Professor Haslam went as far as to call for the Government to return to the drawing board entirely.
He said: ‘So many cheap, effective opportunities have been missed, and it’s hard to imagine that industry bosses weren’t given a big red marker pen to cross anything they didn’t like, out.
‘The bits that don’t involve industry are promising; more physical activity in schools etc, but for now we need an apology from Hunt, and a newer better strategy – about as likely to happen as this strategy is to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity.’
The Obesity Health Alliance, which includes the RCGP, called the plan ‘a missed opportunity’ and condemned its omitting regulation on junk food advertising.
It said in a statement: ‘[W]e need strong and bold Government action to make it as easy as possible for children and their families to make healthier choices and lead healthier lives. While the launch of the soft drinks industry levy consultation is an important step, the Government’s plan falls disappointingly short of what is needed.
‘In particular, there is strong evidence that shows that targets, backed by regulation, for the food and drinks industry to make their products healthier and removing junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed would have a huge impact on reducing levels of obesity so it is very disappointing to see that both of these measures have been significantly watered down or removed entirely.’
The BMA said in a statement: ‘Although the government proposes targets for food companies to reduce the level of sugar in their products, the fact that these are voluntary and not backed up by regulation, renders them pointless.
‘Targets are also needed to reduce levels of saturated fat and salt in products – these must be backed up by regulation.’
Retired GP and outgoing deputy BMA chair Dr Kailash Chand said the plan was ‘not looking after the real concerns around children’s health’.
He said: ‘It’s too little, too late, and just trying to protect the vested interests of big food corporations and big drinks companies.’
Public Health England had advised the Government to introduce a 10-20% sugar tax on food and drinks, a measure which a Pulse survey showed most GPs supported and which was also backed by the health select committee.
PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie said: ‘This plan is the first step on the long road to tackling childhood obesity – one of the most important issues for the future of our children.
‘It outlines significant steps to tackle the problem head on including a commitment to introduce a levy on sugary drinks and an ambitious programme to reduce the level of sugar in food and drink, which we are proud to be leading on.’
Public Health Minister Nicola Blackwood said: ‘This Government is absolutely committed to reducing childhood obesity and one of the best ways to do this is to boost sports in schools.
‘Team GB has been a huge inspiration at the Rio Olympics. We need to keep that inspiration alive when children go back to school in September – that’s why we’re asking schools and parents to ensure children do an extra hour a of physical activity every day.’
The Government’s childhood obesity strategy pledges:
- Urging the food industry to cut sugar content in foods popular with children by 20% by 2020, and by 5% in the first year;
- Legislating for a sugary drinks tax in the Finance Bill 2017;
- Using sugary drinks tax to double primary school PE funding and boost school ‘breakfast club’ funding by £10m;
- Ask primary schools to ensure pupils are physically active for 30 minutes a day and ask Ofsted to rate schools on their measures to increase physical activity;
- Look at improving labelling on food nutrition, for example using teaspoons of sugar;
- Develop ‘healthy menus’ for nurseries and child minders;
- A yearly ‘hackathon’ to support new technology such as healthy food apps.
Source: Department of Health