The much anticipated Childhood Obesity Plan has been published, but it has been criticised relentlessly from all angles, with policymakers being accused of throwing away their best chance at tackling the skyrocketing obesity rates that are putting such strain on the NHS.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said that children are overexposed to advertising for unhealthy foods, but that the government has failed to address this problem.
Almost one third of children between the ages of two and 15 years are overweight or obese, the report said, putting them at an increased risk of developing a myriad of health problems in later life. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer have all been strongly linked to an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.
The government’s strategy concentrates heavily on reducing the amount of sugar that children consume, with George Osborne announcing a sugar tax back in March. The main focuses of the government strategy include:
Ensuring primary school children get a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day at school, and the same amount at home
A 20 per cent reduction in the sugar content of cereal, yoghurt, sweets, breads, and desserts within the next five years
Encouraging schools to make a clear commitment to healthier meals for pupils
A reduction in portion size of foods that contain high amounts of sugar
Targets for the sugar content per 100 grams of a specific product
Calorie caps on food and drink products
Having finally been published after many delays and changes, the plan has experienced an immediate backlash from medical experts, politicians and campaigners who have labelled it as being “embarrassing” and “weak”.
Dr Sarah Wollaston, chairwoman of the health select committee, vocalised her disappointment that “whole sections” of the draft were dropped before the final version was released. This included tackling deals on unhealthy food, such as two-for-one price promotions, and taking actions to restrict junk food being advertised to children.
Chairwoman of the BMA’s board of science, Professor Parveen Kumar, said the government had “rowed back on its promises by announcing what looks like a weak plan rather than the robust strategy it promised.
“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.
“Poor diet has become a feature of our children’s lives, with junk food more readily available, and food manufacturers bombarding children with their marketing every day for food and drinks that are extremely bad for their health. It is incredibly disappointing that the government appears to have failed to include plans for tighter controls on marketing and promotion.”
Jenny Rosborough, of Action on Sugar, said: “The UK should lead the world in tackling obesity and type 2 diabetes, and this is an embarrassing and inexcusable waste of a fantastic opportunity to put the nation’s health first.”
Meanwhile, Ian Wright, director general of the Food and Drink Federation, stated: “The proposed tax on soft drinks is a disappointing diversion from effective measures to tackle obesity. Soft drink companies are already making great progress to reduce sugars from their products, having achieved a 16 per cent reduction between 2012 and 2016.
“However, the target set for sugar’s reduction in the plan is flawed. It focuses too strongly on the role of this single nutrient, when obesity is caused by excess calories from any nutrient. Moreover, the target is unlikely to be technically practical across all the selected food categories.
“Reformulation is difficult and costly: there are different challenges for each product; recipe change can only proceed at a pace dictated by consumers. We will of course do everything we can in the next six months to work towards a practicable reformulation solution while continuing to urge the government to adopt a ‘whole diet’ approach.”