Food for Thought: The pitfalls of the Childhood Obesity Plan

Posted On: 
14th June 2019

Dods Monitoring's Tessa Horan analyses the challenges faced by those hoping to tackle childhood obesity 

Credit: 
PA Images

Tackling childhood obesity requires implementing core changes to the way people live, which is no small feat. Fears have arisen that implementing such progressive forms of health policy could lead to the curation of a regulatory minefield for those in the food industry whilst not sufficiently tackling the socio-economic problems; a central cause of obesity amongst children.

When the first chapter of the Childhood Obesity Plan was published in 2016 it was hailed as a flagship policy for then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to tackling the growing crisis of severely overweight children in the UK. It signalled an urgent shift in the way we deal with childhood obesity, promising a more holistic approach with multiple stakeholder involvement.

Painting the Picture

The Commons Health Committee report ‘Childhood Obesity: Time for Action’, estimates that “nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese in the UK” and  NHS Digital data shows “more than 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they begin school, and 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school”; these findings illustrate the scale of the issue. 

As a research briefing on obesity highlights, children living in deprived areas are substantially more likely to be obese and the publication of a Plan for Action acknowledged that the causes of obesity are embedded within socio-economic issues. For this reason, creating far reaching solutions that alter the way thousands of children view food, exercise and nutrition is challenging.
As a result of the publication of the first two chapters of the plan, the soft drinks industry levy was introduced, food and drink industry manufacturers were challenged with reducing the amount of sugar and calories in the foods most commonly eaten by children by 20% by 2020. New rules also came into effect in July 2017 banning the advertising of Foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) in children’s media. The impact of these changes has proven to be limited with PHE analysis showing only a 2% reduction in both average sugar content and calories, rather than the targeted 5%, and 2017/18 statistics exposed restricted progress in reducing the percentage of children who are obese.

The problem with the plan

Three years down the line since the publication of the first chapter, suggestions are still being made by industry leaders and health experts of what more can be done to target the issue. The Health and Social Care Committee’s report Childhood obesity: Time for action bought to the fore a further six recommendations of action to be taken and incorporated into the next chapter of the Plan. Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies has also been commissioned to review what more can be done to reduce levels of childhood obesity and ensure that the 2030 target is met, but she commented that “there is no silver bullet…we need to think outside of the box”. Such comments from influential stakeholders suggests that the current approach towards cutting levels of childhood obesity is failing; the challenge for policy makers therefore is to convert to a more holistic approach rather than focussing on a select few methods which are ineffective and unsustainable in the long term. 

As Baroness Walmsley aptly highlighted in a debate  “the structural underpinning of this problem is poverty…It should be a whole-Government issue”. This comment encompasses the primary failings of the childhood obesity plan thus far; the preceding chapters have ensured the creation of numerous regulations and restrictions that impede industry stakeholders, but simply attempting to reduce children’s consumption of Foods high in fat, salt and sugar is ineffective in tackling the one of the primary causes of obesity amongst children; poverty.

The reformulation of food and drink products is undoubtedly positive and approaches to altering consumer behaviours is helpful, however placing significant onus on industry leaders to assist in reducing the levels of obese children is risky and distracts from the root causes of the problem. Industry leaders have alluded to this as Advertising Association chief executive Stephen Woodford echoed “research has shown advertising bans have little impact on the wider societal issues that drive obesity, which is caused by the interaction of many complex factors and requires a multi-faceted solution,". Similar concerns were voiced by the BMJ following the publication of the first chapter, who commented the plan represents “a major lost opportunity for effective prevention”.

The next stages

With many pre-empting the publication of an additional chapter of the plan soon, there are worries that again the root causes….

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