Baroness Walmsley: The child obesity crisis means a future crisis for the NHS
Overweight children are five times more likely to become overweight adults, leading to life-threatening diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, writes Baroness Walmsley.
On Tuesday 17th April I will be leading a debate in the House of Lords about the childhood obesity crisis and asking the Government how it plans to reverse it. The reasons we need to discuss this matter are plain.
The number of children who are overweight or even obese has never been higher, one in three entering primary school and one in four leaving it. The number of children who are not sufficiently active is far too high, around half of seven year olds. These problems are greater among disadvantaged communities so it is a health equality issue. Overweight children are five times more likely to become overweight adults, leading to life-threatening diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Obesity-linked issues cost the NHS over £6 billion per year and the general economy £27 billion, which is not sustainable.
This is not just a matter that worries adults. Children are concerned about it too. I recently received 30 letters from a class of eight and nine year olds from St Joseph’s Primary School in Burnham on Sea. They expressed concern about advertising of junk foods, the diseases that result from being overweight, hidden sugars and lack of opportunities to get fit and active. They wanted to know what I am going to do about it, so I have promised to ask the Government to make some changes.
The first thing they want is a change to the rules regarding advertising of foods high in sugar fat and salt in programmes watched by children. The children told me that the adverts do have an effect on them, with 28 out of 30 feeling that advertising of junk food persuades them to eat ‘garbage’. Twenty three of them have seen more adverts for junk food than for healthy food. Currently the rules, which were established ten years ago, only address children’s programmes, but we know that nowadays most of children’s viewing is what is known as ‘family viewing’ and much of it is online as the children pointed out. They were also concerned about the cost of fruit and vegetable and wanted to see more Fit4Life adverts to help them make healthy choices.
Cancer Research UK recommends that the forthcoming ASA review of the rules on advertising foods high in sugar, fat and salt to children should recommend a 9 pm watershed. There is evidence from Quebec that a ban on advertising junk food to children can work because their strict rules have resulted in a much lower level of child obesity there than in other parts of Canada. So why were advertising restrictions not included in the Child Obesity Plan even though the Government’s advisers recommended it?
I expect the Government will prefer mainly to rely on voluntary changes by the food industry and there is evidence that this has worked with salt reduction and the removal of trans-fats. The children were quite aware of the diseases linked to poor diet and they pointed out that there are a lot of hidden sugars in processed foods such as bread, pizzas and baked beans. I have no doubt that the Minister will remind me that the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has just come into play and already a lot of sugary drinks have been reformulated in order to avoid it. This is a very good thing which would probably not have happened if it had not been for the threat of the levy. But I would like to know how the Government will be monitoring the effects of the sugar tax in order to inform future policy, how the money will be spent and whether Local Authorities, who now have responsibility for public health, will have a say.
I look forward to being able to give the children of St Josephs some encouraging answers.
Baroness Walmsley is a Liberal Democrat peer.