Childhood Obesity Strategy - Not very brave, not much action

Post date: 19-Aug-2016 12:06:51

Yesterday, the UK Government finally released their “Childhood Obesity Strategy: a plan for action”. Originally planned for release in December, 2015 it was postponed several times with Theresa May most recently suggesting that it would not be released until the Autumn. It's appearance yesterday was therefore, earlier than expected. As Jamie Oliver pointed out, this timing is notable as it's currently the parliamentary summer break where it becomes harder for any critics to make any significant comments on the content. It may also be no accident that it's release yesterday coincided with the Olympics, allowing it to slip under the media spotlight, ride the feel-good wave that accompanies success in any large sporting mega-event and also to re-emphasise the link between sport, inactivity and obesity, something that the Big Food companies are always keen to promote. Indeed, it was with some interest that while the BBC reported that the plan was being attacked as "weak and watered down", ITV seemed to have swallowed the sport narrative whole.

The new strategy has been criticised by many

The preliminary report of the Childhood Obesity Health Select Committee was ambitiously titled “Brave and Bold Action” and was released in November, 2015 with content that included regulations that were built on advice from Public Health England and a number of experts that gave evidence. The subsequent release of the final strategy has been criticised by many stakeholders that even includes the retailers who have criticised the lack of solid regulations. The final strategy released yesterday was identified as being significantly slimmer than the initial draft version with notable omissions being the removal of restrictions on marketing to children and multi-buy food promotions. MP Sarah Wollaston went as far as expressing her disappointment at how the strategy had been influenced by the Big Food lobbyists.

Big interests have trumped those of children in dumping advertising & promotion from the childhood obesity strategy

— Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) 17 August 2016

We need to change the environment to enable better choices

The industry narrative continues to emphasise a holistic approach to calories, the importance of physical activity and the damage that would be done were a robust [effective] sugar tax be implemented, yet critics of the previous attempt at industry self-regulation, The Responsibility Deal, point out that voluntary guidelines don't go far enough and that more regulation is needed to make significant changes in the food choices that are available to people.

Our health is determined by more than just our own personal levels of motivation to be healthy, it's influenced by factors such as social norms, food availability, marketing and price. Developing public policy and legislation that can create the right environment for making healthy choices is key and with the removal of guidelines on marketing to children and the use of food promotions, this strategy falls short of it's full potential.

How politics can lead to obesity

Politicians come with their own particular ideologies and are ultimately answerable to the electorate. It is with this in mind that I was struck by a figure (see below) in a book I read over the summer, "How politics makes us sick: Neoliberal epidemic", by profs Ted Schrecker and Clare Bambra. There are multiple influences on our health (Berkman et al, 2014) and The Foresight Report spider diagram is quite clear in the level of complexity that we are faced with. There is however, evidence that the type of political environment that we live in can have a measurable effect on the degree to which obesity exists. In an environment where a political ideology is the reduction of "restrictive" regulations and in which austerity driven reductions in public spending ultimately effect the effectiveness of public health bodies, one can see how the choices made by our political leaders have far reaching consequences.