Is proposed strategy on childhood obesity really ‘pathetic’?

If the UK’s obesity epidemic is not reversed, many people will endure avoidable illness and early death, at a huge cost to the NHS. The UK therefore urgently needs an obesity strategy. A draft of the government’s childhood obesity strategy, promised for last autumn, has just been leaked to a campaigning group called Action on Sugar, revealing that a few small steps forward may be proposed. But they will be far from sufficient. A bucket of water can’t put out a forest fire.

The problem of obesity first came to the attention of British government ministers in the early 2000s. It was not the Department of Health that was worried; it was the Treasury. Ministers realised that much of the extra resources allocated to the NHS were being used to treat a growing number of overweight and obese people. But the prime minister, Tony Blair, assumed that the problem could be left to supermarkets to put right.

When Gordon Brown became prime minister, he wanted to initiate fundamental reforms to the UK food system, so in 2008 he commissioned a report. By the time the report was finally published, a coalition government, led by Conservative David Cameron, was in power.

The report was in two parts: the first showed that the UK food system was ecologically, economically and nutritionally unsustainable. The second sketched a delightful future in which all problems had been solved. What was missing was any plan to get from here to there. Coalition ministers were not interested in the report’s contents. Within a month of its publication, they had forgotten about it.

Education and information are not enough

The Conservative health secretary, Andrew Lansley, promised the food industry he would not impose regulations they disliked. Instead of requiring the food industry to provide significantly healthier foods and drinks, in 2011 he invited them to participate in “a responsibility deal”, under which food companies pledged to reduce calories in their products.

Many signed up, but very little was accomplished. The government’s approach assumed that obesity could and should be solved by providing the public with education and information.

Food labelling was slightly more informative than previously, especially with so called front-of-pack labelling. While consumers preferred traffic light labelling on the front of many food and drink packs, firms did not want red warnings on their products. They preferred numerical estimates of nutrient levels in neutral colours. Lessons on healthy eating were introduced into the national curriculum and advice on healthy eating was available on government websites.

Some restrictions were also introduced on the advertising of junk food during children’s television programmes, but similar restrictions did not apply to family programmes, such as soap operas, which many children watch.

Those measures were insufficient to reduce rates of overweight and obesity among children. The number of school-age children receiving treatment for obesity and related problems, such as type 2 diabetes, continued to rise. Small amounts of education and information were clearly insufficient, especially for children.

Leaked strategy

Reluctantly, ministers conceded that while their approach to adults would continue to focus on education and information, children need more. So a childhood obesity strategy was promised, but has not yet been delivered.

The leaked strategy focuses mainly on one type of change, namely reformulation by manufacturers of processed foods, to cut the calories their products deliver. The draft only suggests a voluntary 20% reduction in added sugar by 2020, but consumer campaigners had been calling for a compulsory 50% reduction in sugar and for 20% less fat.

The draft fudged the issue of introducing more effective controls on advertising and promotions of junk foods to children. It merely suggests another consultation, delaying further any action.

Reformulation may help a bit, but far more fundamental changes will be needed. Agricultural policies in the UK and Europe have encouraged the over-production of fats and sugars, and food processors have made a lot of money from buying cheap, plentiful and nutritious ingredients, and transforming them into relatively scarce, expensive and nutritionally impoverished products. Solving the problem of obesity in the UK will require far more than reformulation to cut sugars and fat by 20% or even 50%.

Action on Sugar has called David Cameron’s draft strategy “pathetic”. That description is not misleading, and my concern now is whether anything less pathetic will emerge from Theresa May’s government. Many who argued for Brexit want regulations weakened not strengthened, but that would mean the problems of obesity getting worse, not better.