The UK government’s long awaited strategy to cut childhood obesity in the country is being criticised by medical experts and campaigners who say the Childhood Obesity Plan, published Thursday, is watered down and does not go far enough to tackle the issue.
Most of the measures outlined in the plan (view a summary below) rely on voluntary participation from the food and drink industry, rather than mandatory restrictions.
The plan also excludes measures to curb the advertising of unhealthy products to children, which had been a priority outlined by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
However, the plan does outline the government’s intention to introduce a soft drinks tax. Revenue from the levy will be invested in programmes to encourage school-aged children take part in physical activity and eat balanced diets.
The soft drinks industry has two years to lower the sugar in their products in order not to be taxed before the levy is legislated in the 2017 finance bill.
But elsewhere, medical experts and campaigners have criticised the fact that the Childhood Obesity Plan only includes a voluntary target for manufacturers to cut sugar in children’s food and drink products, such as cereals and yoghurts, by 20%.
The plan has been roundly criticised as “weak” and “underwhelming”
Professor Parveen Kumar, chairwoman of the British Medical Association’s board of science, told ITV News it looked as though the government had “rowed back on its promises” by announcing “a weak plan rather than the robust strategy it had promised.”
Kumar added: “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.”
Conservative Party MP and former doctor Sarah Wollaston also criticised the plan. Writing on Twitter, she said: “Big interests have trumped those of children in dumping advertising & promotion from the childhood obesity strategy.”
In downgrading the obesity ‘plan’ many important opportunities have been lost to improve children’s diets & tackle health inequality
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) August 17, 2016
Writing on Facebook, celebrity chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver, said the government’s strategy was “disappointing, and frankly, underwhelming.”
“I’m in shock. The long-awaited Childhood Obesity Strategy from Theresa May’s new Government is far from robust, and I don’t know why was it shared during recess. It contains a few nice ideas, but so much is missing.
“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? Where are the actions on the irresponsible advertising targeted at our children, and the restrictions on junk food promotions?
“The sugary drinks tax seems to be the only clear part of this strategy, and with funds going directly to schools that’s great, but in isolation it’s not enough.
“This strategy was Britain’s opportunity to lead the way and to implement real, meaningful environmental change, to start removing the crippling financial burden from our NHS and reversing the tide of diet-related disease. With this disappointing, and frankly, underwhelming strategy the health of our future generations remains at stake.
“I sincerely hope the Government’s promise to ‘take further action where it is needed’ is true.”
Meanwhile, campaign group Action on Sugar’s campaign manager Jenny Rosborough told The Financial Times the strategy was “an embarrassing and inexcusable waste of a fantastic opportunity to put the nation’s health first.”
The Childhood Obesity Plan: A summary
- The introduction of a soft drinks tax.
- A voluntary industry scheme for food and drinks manufacturers to cut 20% of sugar from children’s products. The programme will be monitored by Public Health England, which will set targets for calorie and sugar caps.
- The development of a new “nutrient profile” that will help people determine which foods and drinks are unhealthy.
- The government will work to encourage local authorities to adopt the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services in public sector buildings.
- The Department of Heath will also collaborate with Public Health England, NHS England, and the Behavioural Insights Team to trial behavioural interventions in NHS hospitals are the sale of unhealthy food and drink.
- The government says it is “re-committing” to the Healthy Start scheme, which provides vouchers to people on low incomes that can be exchanged for fruit, vegetables, or milk.
- The government will provide a “new interactive online tool” to help schools plan at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. The aim is to get school children to take part in 60 minutes of physical activity per day.
- A new “healthy rating scheme” for primary schools that will be taken into account during Ofsted inspections.
- The Secretary of State for Education will led a campaign encouraging all schools to sign up to the new School Food Standards, which came into force in January 2015. There’s also a campaign planned for early 2017 to raise awareness of voluntary healthy food guidelines for children in pre-school.
- The government says it will “build on the success” of the current food labelling scheme, which could include clearer visual labelling, such as teaspoons of sugar.
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