The Government has ‘rowed back on its promises’ and let big business interests trump those of children by producing a watered-down childhood obesity strategy.
This is the frustrated message from health experts who have criticised the document, slimmed down from around 50 pages to just 10, which they say fails to force companies to reduce sugar in food and drink and sets ‘voluntary targets’ rather than strong legislation.
The childhood obesity strategy was intended to address the UK having one of the highest levels of obesity in Western Europe, with one in three children overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, but experts say much more needs to be done.
Health select committee chair and Conservative MP for Totnes Sarah Wollaston said the plan represented a ‘triumph of industry lobbyists’ and ‘really sticks in your throat’.
Writing on Twitter she said: ‘In downgrading the obesity "plan" many important opportunities have been lost to improve children's diets and tackle health inequality.'
Dr Wollaston added: ‘Sadly the life-expectancy gap not such a "burning injustice" after all if this childhood-obesity plan is the shape of things to come.’
In July health experts and doctors leaders criticised the Government’s decision to postpone publishing the strategy on childhood obesity – which was supposed to be released months ago.
Prime minister Theresa May said she would delay the long-awaited report until the autumn, even though NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has urged the Government to act on the issue.
Mr Stevens urged Government to unveil the plan, suggesting that the obesity crisis costs the taxpayer more than the entire bill for the police and fire services combined.
Doctors had hoped the strategy would include strong restrictions on junk-food advertising and stop supermarkets and shops placing sweets next to checkouts.
But a leaked draft report suggested some of these measures would be either abandoned or watered down and the finalised document, which has now been published, confirmed those fears.
BMA board of science chair Parveen Kumar said the Government had ‘announced 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,’ Professor Kumar added.
‘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 has failed to include any plans for tighter controls on marketing and promotion.
‘While the introduction of a sugar tax is an encouraging step forward, this on its own is not enough to solve the obesity problem facing our country.
'Poor diet is responsible for up to 70,000 deaths a year, and has a greater impact on the NHS budget than alcohol consumption, smoking or physical inactivity.
‘The Government must act now and take urgent action to address the ticking time bomb that obesity poses to children and the NHS.’
The plan does provide information about a sugar levy that was annoucned in the budget, a target for primary school children to undertake an hour of physical activity each day, and a pledge to introduce clearer food labelling. But health leaders say those measures are not enough.
Royal Society for Public Health chief executive Shirley Cramer said: ‘If we are to stand any chance of reversing the shocking rates of childhood obesity, it will require hard-hitting action on many fronts.
‘It is of course welcome to see further investment in school sport and that Ofsted inspections will now take into account how schools support their pupil’s health.
'However, it does feel like several pages of the plan are missing; there is a glaring omission around any measures to tackle the aggressive marketing of junk food – on TV, online, and through sponsorship and price promotions.
'Such marketing and promotion was identified as a critical area for action by Public Health England in its sugar-reduction report last year. It is therefore extremely disappointing that these evidence-based recommendations have been dismissed.’
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