Theresa May under pressure over childhood obesity as MPs back crackdown on junk food ads

‘Consequences for these children are appalling and this can no longer be ignored,’ says Tory MP Sarah Wollaston

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 30 May 2018 00:24
Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall call for childhood obesity action

An influential group of MPs is demanding a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm, among a raft of new measures to overturn the UK’s childhood obesity epidemic.

Reforms pitched by the Health and Social Care Committee include bans on permitting cartoon characters to promote unhealthy snacks, outlawing sweets at supermarket checkouts and forcing restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus.

The report said failure to ban adverts for unhealthy foods before 9pm would leave a “worrying gap” in the government’s efforts to tackle obesity and would “call into question” Theresa May’s commitment to the issue.

The intervention, led by influential Tory backbencher Dr Sarah Wollaston, will ramp up pressure on the government, which is due to publish the second part of its obesity strategy this summer.

It also comes after new research revealed more than 20,000 primary school pupils are severely obese, leaving them at risk of a lifetime of health problems including type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Dr Wollaston, the committee chair, said: “Children are becoming obese at an earlier age and staying obese for longer.

“Obesity rates are highest for children from the most disadvantaged communities and this unacceptable health inequality has widened every year since records began.

“The consequences for these children are appalling and this can no longer be ignored.”

She called for a “whole systems approach” to fighting obesity where local authorities can use planning and licensing powers to reduce the number of junk food outlets in their jurisdiction while ministers bring in tougher restrictions on marketing unhealthy treats.

This includes a ban on sponsorship deals by brands overwhelmingly associated with high fat, sugar and salt products of sports clubs, venues, youth leagues and tournaments.

The committee also called for the sugar tax to extend to milkshakes and suggested further “fiscal measures” should be included in the government’s action plan.

Obesity is a significant public health concern, which cost the NHS in England more than £6.1bn last year through treatment of related health problems.

Childhood obesity is also seen as a driver of health inequalities as it disproportionately affects young people from poorer communities.

Five-year-olds from the poorest backgrounds are twice as likely to be obese than their most affluent peers, soaring to three times as likely by the time they are 11 years old, the report said.

Despite major commitments from the government to tackle the issue, campaigners have warned that more needs to be done to stop the problem spiralling out of control.

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “The key to a reduction of obesity is prevention and we must not hang around, action must be taken now.

“Marketing is a significant driver of obesity and we know that it influences what children consume so we strongly support the committee’s calls for a ban on advertising of junk food before 9pm and a ban on brand generated characters or licensed TV and film characters from being used to promote foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

Sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks 'fuelling obesity epidemic among children'

“However we know that prevention will not support those children already overweight or obese so it is therefore essential support services are available for these children to be referred to.”

Dr Modi Mwatsama of the Obesity Health Alliance, said: “This a superb report that reflects what obesity campaigners have long been saying – the UK is in the midst of an obesity epidemic and government must take strong measures to tackle childhood obesity if we’re to prevent this spiralling beyond control.

“The ban on junk food advertising prior to the 9pm watershed is a much needed measure, as is toughening up on promotions and the marketing of unhealthy food at children.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said childhood obesity was a “complex problem” and its 2016 strategy was only the start of efforts to curb rising obesity levels in the young.

The spokesperson said: “That’s why we have the most ambitious plan in the world to tackle it, our sugar tax is funding school sports programmes and nutritious breakfasts for the poorest children, and we’re investing in further research into the links between obesity and inequality.

“We’ve always said that our 2016 plan was the start of the conversation, not the final word on obesity. We are in the process of working up an updated plan, and will be in a position to say more shortly.”

Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association, said the UK has some of the “strictest rules in the world” on advertising products that are high in fat, sugar and salt to children.

He said: “We remain of the view that measures such as a 9pm watershed would be ineffective in tackling the complex root causes of childhood obesity which are linked to a whole range of factors, including socioeconomic background, ethnicity and educational attainment.”

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