Putting obesity action at the heart of policy

07 August 2018 | Health policy

Our latest research shows that obesity is a cause of at least 12 cancers. That’s why we’re a member of the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 UK organisations that have joined together to address the influences that lead to excess body weight throughout life. Caroline Cerny of the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) updates us on its work.

The government recently announced 'Chapter Two' of their childhood obesity plan. This update, which includes a target to halve childhood obesity by 2030 and close the gap between the most and least deprived children, is a positive leap forward from the initial plan launched two years ago and has been welcomed by OHA and our members.

The plan includes the intention to bring in a range of measures aimed at making healthier choices easier, including the following:

  • preventing stores from displaying unhealthy food at checkouts and other prominent spots or including it in multi-buy offers such as buy-one-get-one-free deals (which just encourage us to buy and eat more rather than save money).
  • introducing clear, consistent calorie labelling on menus in restaurants, cafés and takeaways. This will help everyone be more informed about what they eat.
  • banning the sale of harmful, caffeine-laden energy drinks to children.
  • watershed on junk food adverts to reduce children's exposure to adverts which influence their food preferences and how much they eat. Similar measures will also be brought in to protect children online.
  • a new national ambition for every primary school to adopt a daily ‘active mile’ initiative.

Creating healthy environments for future generations

For too long our environment has continually steered us towards high fat and sugar options with relentless advertising and promotions, making healthy choices harder. If fully implemented, these plans have real potential to ensure that children in the UK have healthy futures.

Since our inception in 2015, OHA have campaigned hard to reduce children's exposure to junk food marketing, highlighting loopholes in the current rules and regulations. In early July, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld complaints we submitted, along with the Children’s Food campaign, against Cadbury, Chewits and Squashies – for online adverts for unhealthy foods clearly aimed at children.

But we need to keep up the pressure. It took six months for ASA decisions to be reached, by which time the advertising campaigns had finished; the companies in question weren’t penalised in any way, and children remained largely unprotected. The government has pledged to consider whether self-regulation is the best approach to tackling junk food marketing in the non-broadcast space, or if legislation is necessary. The evidence points to the latter.

Childhood obesity statistics

The statistics on childhood obesity underline the scale of the problem. In April 2018, for example, the National Childhood Measurement Programme (NCMP) reported that nearly a quarter (23%) of children aged four to five in England have a weight status classified as overweight or obese in 2016-17, along with 34% of children aged 10 to 11. That’s storing up a huge potential health problem for the future, because carrying excess weight increases risk in adulthood of developing conditions including heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as cancer.

The number of children aged 10 to 11 years with a weight in the severe obesity category has reached the highest level since records began, according to new figures published on 24 July 2018 by Public Health England. Analysis of the NCMP between 2006 to 2007 and 2016 to 2017 reveals detailed trends in severe obesity for the first time. The figures also revealed that big health inequalities continue to widen across young children, with excess weight, obesity, overweight and severe obesity being common in the more deprived areas of the country.

There are no magic bullets. Reducing obesity will require swift and sustained action from across government departments on the ‘Chapter Two’ proposals with further action in future years across a wide range of additional measures to transform our unhealthy environment into a health promoting one. Halving levels of childhood obesity is a bold but worthy ambition. There is a long road ahead of us, but we are finally on the right track.

Caroline Cerny | 07 August 2018