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New UK childhood obesity strategy criticised as weak and failing to deliver essential action to restrict advertising

Photo: USDA, Flickr, creative commons licence 2.0

A new strategy has been launched by the UK government to tackle overweight and obesity among children. The strategy highlights a reaffirmed commitment to the sugary drinks tax (the only measure in the strategy which is not based on voluntary action) and it emphasises the importance of sports and school breakfast clubs.

The strategy has however already been heavily criticised for not including proposed curbs on junk food television advertisements and focusing instead on the importance of school sport and physical activity.

Nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 in the UK are overweight or obese, and younger generations are becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer. The strategy, the release of which has been delayed from December 2015 to August 2016, is now clearly geared towards promoting daily exercise and voluntary action by companies rather than implementing restrictions on industry.  The focus on sports rather than on policy actions to change food industry behaviour has been described by some media commentators as a victory for the food industry over health campaigners.

Food industry companies have been asked to reduce the sugar content of foods that children enjoy by 20% by 2020 (cereals, desserts, yoghurts and sweets) as already outlined by the sugar tax. Many observers state that the sugar tax is an important part of a childhood obesity strategy, but that it is far from enough. Other than reduced sugar intakes, Public Health England (PHE) has highlighted two other measures that would be crucial to fight obesity among children, neither of which are included in the new strategy:

  • Banning price-cutting promotions of junk food in supermarkets, such as multipacks and buy one get one free, as well as promotion of unhealthy food to children in restaurants, cafes and takeaways.
  • Restricting advertising of unhealthy food high in salt, fat and sugar to children through family TV programmes such as Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, as well as on social media and websites.

Civil society and health campaigners have expressed serious concerns that the strategy is not ambitious enough. The UK Health Forum (former National Heart Forum) laments that the strategy has failed to adopt the comprehensive package of evidence-based measures recommended by Public Health England to effectively tackle childhood obesity. Read the full position statement by the UK Health Forum here and further critique by health campaigners here and here. You can see a commentary by the civil society food and health think tank The Food Foundation here. For a response by the food industry, see a statement by The Food and Drink Federation here.

Read the full UK childhood obesity strategy and see further coverage by BBC here, The Guardian here and here and Financial Times here.

For more information about how one might change diets in more healthy and sustainable directions see Chapter 10 of Foodsource as well as Chapter 9  ‘What’s a healthy sustainable eating pattern’ and for more on obesity and other forms of malnutrition see Chapter 7.

Read more in the Research Library categories health issues and keyword categories obesity/overweight, food and agriculture policy, nutrition policy, marketing, food taxes.

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