All of us must be encouraged and supported to live healthy lives
From the obesity crisis to health inequalities, the battle is on to secure a healthy future for everyone in the UK, writes Sharon Hodgson
Over the last two years, as the shadow minister for public health, I have worked on a vast number of issues. From those widely covered in the media such as obesity and smoking, to rare diseases and women’s health, I’ve been working hard to present Labour’s vision for better public health.
What brings these different issues together is my determination to ensure that all of us, particularly children, are encouraged and supported to live healthy lives.
While there is much to be done to ensure that everyone grows up fit and healthy, the two issues I am focusing on the most are the obesity crisis and health inequalities.
The Conservative government recently launched the second chapter of its childhood obesity plan, and announced it would consult on policies to tackle childhood obesity. Labour has been clear from the start that there is no need to consult, as the evidence is already staring the government in the face.
The UK has the second highest consumption of energy drinks per head in the world; the highest being in Austria, home to 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, yet children as young as 10 are buying energy drinks for as little as 25p. It is therefore clear that something needs to be done. That is why Labour would restrict the sale of energy drinks to under-16s.
Advertising has a similar detrimental effect on our purchasing and eating habits. According to a University of Liverpool report, 59% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time were for foods high in fat, salt and sugar 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.
When we are surrounded by such powerful advertising for unhealthy food and drink, it is no wonder two in three people in the UK are either overweight or obese.
That is why the next Labour government will introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food adverts.
I am clear that it’s not just about diet, but activity too. When in government, the Labour party introduced free swimming sessions for children and made it compulsory for schools to teach at least two hours of PE each week. Both these policies were scrapped by the coalition government in 2010.
Just one in 10 pre-school children currently meet recommended physical activity levels. That is why Labour would focus on getting children fit and healthy once again, and ensuring they grow into healthy adults, regardless of where they live.
Since 2010, when the coalition government came into office, life expectancy has failed to improve. When we look at healthy life expectancy – that is the number of years lived in self-assessed good health – the north-south divide remains as relevant as ever. In the north-east, a man can expect to live 59.7 healthy years, compared to a man in the south-east, who can expect to live 65.9 healthy years. That means that the inequality gap in healthy life expectancy at birth for the south-east and north-east is 6.2 years for men; for women it is even higher at 6.8 years. That such a gap exists in 2018 is a glaring symptom of eight years of Tory austerity.
In order to seriously address these inequalities, the government must give public health services the funding they need so that everyone can have access to the free health care and services they need to live healthier lives.
Sharon Hodgson is Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, and shadow minister for public health