Obesity is a nothing short of a major public health crisis for this country. The scale of the problem is clear: some 26 per cent of adults are classified as obese, with more than 617,000 hospital admissions as a result in 2016-17 – an increase of 18 per cent on the previous year.
I have long been concerned about the rates among the youngest members of our society. Last October, statistics from Public Health England revealed that more than 34 per cent of 10 and 11-year-olds are overweight or obese. That’s nearly 200,000 children – and the evidence also shows that obese children are five times more likely to become obese adults.
Meanwhile, the impact of excess weight and obesity on our overall health should be taken extremely seriously. Cancer Research UK is leading the charge in helping people understand how the risk of 13 different types of cancer – including cancer of the bowel, pancreas and kidneys – is increased among those carrying excess weight.
Doctors are also reporting increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes and liver problems during childhood as a result of increased weight, a scenario unthinkable a generation or two ago.
The financial burden on the health service is stark – the government estimates the NHS spent £6.1 bn on dealing with overweight and obesity-related ill-health in 2014-15. This is projected to rise to nearly £10 bn by 2050.
What is more, further evidence from Public Health England also points to the fact that it is those living in poorer communities who are the hardest hit by this issue: young people living in Barking and Dagenham are almost twice as likely to be overweight as children from Richmond, and this is a trend which is mirrored right across the country.
This should be seen as more of a pressing issue. Helping children form healthy eating habits is an investment in their future. Health should be seen at the nation’s primary asset.
But there is no silver bullet, so we need to take action on a number of fronts, not least by addressing the fact that there are images all around us that encourage unhealthy lifestyles. This includes tackling the prevalence of advertising of unhealthy food and drink that children and their families are exposed to on a daily basis.
From today, 25 February, new restrictions on advertising on London’s entire public transport network will come into effect and adverts for food and drinks which are high in salt, sugar and/or fat will be removed.
This is both timely and has the potential to have a real impact on Londoners' health. There is a growing body of evidence that the more children are exposed to advertising for unhealthy foods – whether on TV, on the internet, or outdoors – the higher the risk of increasing their consumption of those foods and of becoming overweight or obese.
Children are inundated with adverts for food and drink and the Mayor of London is now ensuring action. It is an important step in the right direction.
The move to remove these adverts is widely supported by health and nutrition professionals as well as by charities and obesity campaigners. Indeed many advertisers have already started adapting their approach to come into line with these new rules. The general public are largely behind it too, indicating their increasing concern about obesity among children and young people.
In recent years, the advertising industry has adapted to new restrictions about marketing these products to children and food and drink manufacturers have changed their products in line with the introduction of government legislation including the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (known as the “sugar tax”).
As I said in my recent CMO annual report, “Health 2040 – better health within reach”, this is not about telling people what they can and cannot eat, but creating an environment which prioritises health. As any parent will tell you, encouraging their children to eat well can sometimes be a real challenge given the impact of “pester power”.
The UK is leading the way and we should proudly put our nation’s health first.
Professor Dame Sally Davies is the chief medical officer for England
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