Childhood obesity: Plan attacked as 'weak' and 'watered down'

The government’s childhood obesity plan has been attacked by health experts, campaigners, MPs and the boss of one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets.

The British Medical Association said the government had “rowed back” on promises, and the CEO of Sainsbury’s said the plan did not go far enough.

MP Sarah Wollaston said the plan showed “the hand of big industry lobbyists”, but a minister said it was “ambitious”.

Measures include a voluntary target to cut sugar in children’s food and drink.

What’s in the government’s plan?

The plan asks the food and drink industry to cut 5% of the sugar in products popular with children over the next year.

It says the ultimate target is a 20% sugar cut, with Public Health England monitoring voluntary progress over the next four years.

The plan also calls on primary schools to deliver at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day and to help parents and carers ensure children get the same amount at home.

What is the UK’s most sugary drink?

How much sugar is hiding in your food?

School sports will also get more funds – boosted by a tax on sugary drinks to come into force in 2018.

The childhood obesity strategy also says:

  • Public Health England (PHE) will set targets for sugar content per 100g, and calorie caps for certain products
  • PHE will report on whether the industry is reducing sugar content through the voluntary scheme
  • If insufficient progress is made, the government will consider “whether alternative levers need to be used”
  • A new voluntary “healthy schools rating scheme” will be taken into account during school inspections

Analysis

By Hugh Pym, health editor

Much of the response to the government’s childhood obesity plan has been critical.

Even one of the big supermarket chains has suggested it does not go far enough.

Mike Coupe, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, says there should be a tougher regime including compulsory targets for sugar and mandatory traffic light labelling.

The government plan involves a voluntary 20% sugar reduction scheme.

Theresa May seems to have concluded that the sugar levy on soft drinks – announced in the Budget in March – was enough government intervention.

Health organisations and campaigners are almost universally of the view there should have been wider action.

Some, though, acknowledge that the package unveiled today, including a boost for school sport, is a step in the right direction, albeit a small one.

Has the strategy been ‘watered down’?

Dr Wollaston – who is chairwoman of the health select committee – said it was “really disappointing” that “whole sections from the original draft have been dropped”, including measures on advertising junk food to children and on promotions such as two-for-one deals.

She said these could have made a “real difference really quickly”, and added: “I’m afraid it does show the hand of big industry lobbyists and that’s really disappointing.”

She welcomed measures on cutting sugar in foods and keeping the tax on sugary drinks, but said it would be some time before these took effect.

Referring to Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge to tackle heath inequality, Dr Wollaston said the government should not make such promises then – as the “first litmus test of that” – put the “interests of advertising marketers ahead of the interests of children”.

Labour’s Dianne Abbott tweeted: “Theresa May has given in to food & drink industry at the expense of our children’s health.”

But Jane Ellison, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said the plan was the “most ambitious programme of reformulation that any developed country has taken”.

Ms Ellison, who was formerly the public health minister involved in drawing up the strategy, said the government was acting on the “best advice” from public health experts.

Asked about concerns the government had “watered down” the proposals to limit junk food advertising, she said the UK already had some of the “toughest restrictions in the world”.

A Department of Health spokeswoman added: “The childhood obesity crisis has been decades in the making and it will take years to sort it. We will measure progress carefully and are not ruling out further action if results are not seen.”

How have experts and campaigners reacted?

Professor Parveen Kumar, chairwoman of the British Medical Association’s board of science, 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,” she said.

TV chef and food campaigner Jamie Oliver said he was “in shock” at the “disappointing” plan.

“It contains a few nice ideas, but so much is missing,” he wrote on Facebook.

“It was set to be one of the most important health initiatives of our time, but look at the words used – ‘should, might, we encourage’ – too much of it is voluntary, suggestive, where are the mandatory points?”

The Obesity Health Alliance – a coalition of 33 charities, medical royal colleges and campaign groups – said the plan fell “disappointingly short of what is needed”, with some anticipated measures “significantly watered down or removed entirely”.

Sir Harpal Kumar, chief executive of the charity Cancer Research UK, said the measures were a “missed opportunity” in the fight against childhood obesity.

Councillor Izzi Seccombe, of the Local Government Association, said it was “disappointing” that a number of measures that it had called for – such as giving councils the power to ban junk food adverts near schools – had not been included.

What do industry figures say?

Mike Coupe, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, said the plan was a “welcome first step”.

But he said: “We need a holistic approach to tackle childhood obesity, including compulsory measured targets across all nutrients – not just sugar – and mandatory traffic light labelling across all food and drink products, regardless of whether they are consumed inside or outside the home.”

Ian Wright, of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “Soft drink companies are already making great progress to reduce sugars from their products, having achieved a 16% reduction between 2012 and 2016.

“Indeed, many individual manufacturers have a proud track record of reformulation to remove salt, fat and sugar from food and drinks and this work will continue.”

He said the target to reduce sugar was “flawed” because it focused on “the role of this single nutrient, when obesity is caused by excess calories from any nutrient”.

Gavin Partington, of the British Soft Drinks Association, said his industry had been “singled out” by the “punitive” tax on sugary drinks.

He called for more “holistic” policy on obesity which did not “pick on one category”.

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