Andrew Selous: We need to get much tougher to tackle obesity
Revenue from the sugar tax should be channelled into initiatives to make healthier choices more affordable and attractive, says Andrew Selous
Current estimates suggest that nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese in the UK, and younger generations are becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer.
Obesity is very much a social justice issue as obesity rates are highest for children from the most deprived areas, and this is getting worse not better. Children aged five from the poorest income groups are twice as likely to be obese compared to their more well-off counterparts and, by age 11, they are three times as likely.
The UK also has a particular problem. London has more overweight and obese children than any other major global city; 5% of children in Paris are obese, 7% in Hong Kong, 10% in Sydney, 12% in Toronto, 21% in New York and 22% in London.
The NHS was there for me when I needed it and save my life when I was 24. I want to make sure the NHS is not overwhelmed by preventable conditions like obesity.
It was estimated that the NHS in England spent £6.1bn on overweight and obesity-related ill health in 2017-18, which is more than the government spent on the police, fire service and judicial system combined.
Obese adults are seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and are more likely to be living with conditions like depression.
So, what’s to be done? The overall approach should be to make healthier choices cheaper and easier for people with busy and stressful lives. The soft drinks industry levy has already had significant success in reducing sugar content. To build on this, we need to look at using the tax system to make healthier foods cheaper.
A Sheffield schoolboy visiting the House of Commons last week complained that, at his school, while shortbread cost 40p and biscuits were 50p, fruit packs cost 80p. He has a point.
We also need to get much tougher with the advertising and marketing of high fat, salt and sugar foods across all types of media and advertising space. We should see this as returning real choice and truth over our food purchasing habits.
McKinsey Global Institute’s 2014 report, Overcoming Obesity: An Initial Economic Analysis, showed that portion control had the biggest impact on reducing disability-adjusted life years. The Health and Social Care Committee received evidence this week that portion sizes for takeaway pizza and fries were three times as big in part of the West Midlands as they are in the US!
Training in medical schools on obesity needs to be much improved and the suggestions of Professor Susan Jebb and others on how GPs should help patients overcome obesity should be followed. The ‘making every contact count’ initiative is not working as it should. GP contracts also need to be looked at, as there is currently no financial incentive for GPs to assess a child’s weight.
GPs also need access to the weight of the children on their lists on a regular basis before the age of four and to be able to signpost effective local provision to deal with developing unhealthy weight gain as soon as it arises.
We also need to ensure that when parents are told their child is overweight or obese, they are signposted to provision in their community that would help.
The Health and Social Care Committee has received powerful evidence from Professor Russell Viner of the Obesity Health Alliance about the importance of breastfeeding in preventing obesity. He told us that the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe.
The takeaway industry saw sales increase to £10bn in 2016 and recent press reports have drawn attention to the 25 or more takeaways on the Camberwell Green intersection in Southwark where many pupils of the four nearby primary schools wait for their bus to go home – £1 kids’ offers of calorie-dense food proliferate. The ward is now the first in the country where a majority of children are overweight or obese.
Waltham Forest and Gateshead councils, among others, have led the way in successfully resisting takeaway planning applications. There is no reason, though, why takeaways could not serve affordable, delicious and healthy food.
If we are really serious about dealing with a problem which McKinsey estimated generated an economic loss to the UK of $73bn in 2012, then we should also consider measures such as banning junk food at checkouts and in non-food shops.
Andrew Selous is Conservative MP for south-west Bedfordshire, chair of the APPG on obesity, and a member of the Health and Social Care Committee