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Sin taxes may be the only way to curb childhood obesity

At the end of her time as chief medical officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies’ parting shot was to suggest that there should be a ban on eating and drinking on public transport, in a bid to tackle the obesity epidemic.

She also suggested restrictions on promoting unhealthy foods; provision of free drinking water in public places; car-free weekends; VAT on cakes; planning rules for new takeaway establishments being made more difficult to obtain; and that, like cigarettes, ‘junk food’ should be sold in plain packaging.

Quite a list! There will be those whose knee-jerk response is to condemn this as yet more nannying by the state.

However, the facts are indisputable and stark – the proportion of 10-11-year-olds who are seriously overweight rose for the fourth year in a row to 4.4%. This problem isn’t going away any time soon.

At what point does the state intervene and tighten the sale of junk food to protect children’s health?

Throughout, most of recent human history, the ‘state’ has intervened to improve the lot of children, from banning child labour and the introduction of compulsory education, to placing an age limit on smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.

Realistically, what can GPs do about childhood obesity?

I can’t imagine anybody wanting to live in a world where any of these interventions were reversed.

Professor Davies’ suggestions may be ambitious, but I’d argue that they should be the direction in which we’re aiming.

As a GP, I feel impotent when a parent brings a young child in and asks for my help in assisting their child to lose weight.

What, realistically, can we do? Offer a bit of healthy-eating advice and refer to the dietitian, which may or may not result in them getting seen a few months down the line.

The Government is the only body that can make any real difference on this issue.

Plain packaging for all junk food would be easy to initiate. Then banning sales of sugary drinks and snacks in leisure centres, hospitals and all Government or local authority owned premises and a significant increase in VAT on junk food would be a start.

As much as I’d love to see the end of people gorging themselves with smelly junk food on public transport, I can’t see any way this could be enforced at the moment.

Interestingly, Boris Johnson claims that he’s against ‘sin taxes’.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion about that.

Dr David Turner is a GP in North West London