The Government’s new obesity strategy, published on 27 July 2020, aims to tackle childhood obesity and encourage adults to “take stock of how they live their lives”.

The strategy includes plans to include calorie information on food from restaurants, cafes and takeaways, with a consultation also promised on calorie labelling on alcohol products. In addition, restrictions on promotions for high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods, and a 9pm watershed for TV and online advertising of HFSS goods by the end of 2022 are also to be introduced following consultation. But will it be enough to meet the Government’s targets for reducing obesity?

Lord Dubs (Labour) is due to ask the Government on 2 September 2020 what plans it has to tackle childhood obesity.

Obesity: A growing problem

The World Health Organisation has described childhood obesity as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century, calculating that worldwide, 38 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2019. In addition, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents aged 5–19 has risen dramatically from just 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016.

In England, the latest NHS figures show that in the 2018/19 school year, approximately a quarter of children staring primary school were overweight or obese (including severely obese); the figure rose to over a third for those leaving primary school. The figures also show a strong relationship between deprivation and obesity; obesity prevalence for children starting primary school was over twice as high for children living in the most deprived areas as for children living in the least deprived areas.

A report by the OECD argued that children were paying a high price for obesity, stating: “Children who are overweight do less well at school, get lower marks, are more likely to miss school, and, when they grow up, they are less likely to complete higher education. They also show lower life satisfaction and are up to three times more likely to be bullied, which may contribute to lower school performance. Children with a healthy weight are 13% more likely to report good school performances than children with obesity.”

Obesity and Covid-19

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has brought obesity figures into sharper relief. Evidence suggests that living with excess weight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, leading the Government to acknowledge the “urgency of tackling the obesity time bomb” for both adults and children.

Concerns have been expressed in Parliament about the potential impact of the lockdown inactivity on childhood obesity levels. With both schools and playgrounds shut during lockdown, and daily exercise limited, children have potentially had fewer opportunities to exercise.

These concerns were echoed by Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health who noted that one of the risks of school closures was a potential lack of exercise and obesity.

Government policy

Previous obesity strategies were published by the Government in both 2016 and 2018, while a prevention green paper, Advancing our Health: Prevention in the 2020s, and the NHS Long Term Plan also addressed the issue. The 2018 strategy included a Government ambition to halve childhood obesity and significantly reduce the gap in obesity between children from the most and least deprived areas by 2030.

The 2016 strategy included the announcement (implemented in 2018) of the soft drinks industry levy, a tax on soft drinks that contain more than 5 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. Fruit juices and milk-based drinks are exempt from the levy. The 2018 strategy also committed to a consultation on restrictions on TV and online advertising of HFSS foods, and a consultation on legislation for calorie labelling in restaurants and takeaways was also included.

Commenting in July 2020 on the progress the Government had made to date, the Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, Jo Churchill, argued that there had been “important successes” since the 2016 strategy was published:

[…] including the average sugar content of drinks subject to the soft drinks industry levy decreasing by 28.8% between 2015 and 2018, and significant investment being made in schools to promote physical activity and healthy eating.

As part of delivering key measures outlined in chapter two of the plan, published in 2018, we have held consultations on ending the sale of energy drinks to children, calorie labelling in the out-of-home sector, restricting promotions of high fat, sugar and salt foods by location and by price, further advertising restrictions on television and similar protection online, and updating the nutrition standards in the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services. We will be setting out our responses as soon as we can.

Sally Davies, in her final report as Chief Medical Officer for England, stated that while the strategies would significantly reduce levels of childhood obesity “if implemented in full”, the implementation of the plans would not, on its own, meet the 2030 ambition. Instead, she urged government to go “further and faster”.

The House of Lords Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment was also critical of what it described as the ‘glacial pace at which the Government has acted upon its own proposals to tackle childhood obesity’, describing the situation as unacceptable and arguing that measures to tackle childhood obesity had stalled.

A new plan

On 27 July 2020, the Government published Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults and Children to Live Healthier Lives.

The strategy included several measures aimed at encouraging adults to “take stock of how they live their lives” and a commitment to take forward actions from previous childhood obesity plans. The Government described it an “an overarching campaign to reduce obesity”.

Responding to the strategy, Alex Norris MP, Labour’s Shadow Health and Social Care Minister, called for action rather than consultation, arguing “we’ve had big promises before from Tory ministers on banning junk food advertising only for measures to be kicked into the long grass of consultation”.

Adam Briggs, Senior Policy Fellow at the independent charity the Health Foundation, welcomed “some positive steps” but described the strategy as a “missed opportunity”, commenting:

Many of today’s announcements are not new ideas—they have been included in previous childhood obesity plans but never implemented. Too much time has already been lost, we must now see decisive action.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver applauded the “bold” and “forthright” plans, telling LBC radio it was “probably the best bit of news in probably about ten years.” However, he cautioned that to succeed the plans needed to be implemented: “We’ve got to make sure it lands and it gets done and they deliver it.”

Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay.