Sharon Hodgson: Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are right – we need radical action to tackle childhood obesity

Posted On: 
14th May 2018

The UK has one of the worst obesity rates in Europe. Almost two years on from the government’s strategy there is still a clear need for action, says Sharon Hodgson

Labour MPs supporting the AdEnough campaign
Credit: 
PA Images

This August marks two years since the world’s first childhood obesity plan was published here in the UK. However, it did not receive the attention and celebration you would expect for a ground-breaking strategy. It was published in the middle of summer recess, during the Olympics and on A-level results day, and appeared to be missing some pages. However, it was later confirmed that this world-first strategy really was just 13 pages long.

The plan was the perfect opportunity to really tackle childhood obesity in this country. But with the change of prime ministers, many of the ground-breaking policies that were expected to be in the plan were edited out by Theresa May and her team, with one of her former officials been reported to have boasted about saving Tony the Tiger, the Frosties mascot. 

But almost two years on, there is still a clear need for further action to be taken.

The UK has one of the worst obesity rates in western Europe, with almost two in every three people being either overweight or obese. This problem is set to only get worse, unless we seriously tackle childhood obesity, as an obese child is over five times more likely to grow up into an obese adult. We therefore need targeted action by the government to put an end to these growing trends.

I accept there is no silver bullet to tackling childhood obesity, but there are two policies that I will be looking out for in the second childhood obesity strategy. They are: restricting junk food advertising until after the 9pm watershed on all channels, and restricting the sale of energy drinks to young people.

Advertising is so much more powerful than we all think; there is a reason why brands spend millions on it! According to a University of Liverpool report, 59% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time were for high fat, salt and sugar products and would have been banned from children’s TV.

The same report also found that, in the worst case, children were bombarded with nine junk food adverts in just a 30-minute period, and that adverts for fruit and vegetables made up just over 1% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time.

It is therefore no wonder that there are so many children in this country who are either overweight or obese, as fast food advertising plays such a huge part in their everyday lives.

I fundamentally believe that this culture has to change, and I join celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in their #AdEnough campaign, which calls for the restriction of junk food advertising.

I also join Jamie and Hugh in their campaign on restricting the sale of energy drinks to young people. The UK has the second highest consumption of energy drinks per head in the world, pipped to the top spot by Austria, home of the Red Bull headquarters.

A 500ml can of energy drink can contain 12 teaspoons of sugar and the same amount of caffeine as a double espresso. You wouldn’t let a child eat 12 cubes of sugar or drink a double espresso, so why are we letting them drink the equivalent in an energy drink for as little as 25p?

Thankfully, many supermarkets and retailers have already restricted the sale of energy drinks to children, but the government should go further and put an age restriction on the purchase of energy drinks.

The UK has led the way in making steps to tackle childhood obesity, but we are still at the top of the loser-board for obesity rates and energy drink consumption. A second childhood obesity plan should therefore make meaningful strides in an attempt to tackle these trends so that children in the UK can be some of the healthiest in the world.

 

Sharon Hodgson is Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, and shadow minister for public health