Maggie Throup is MP for Erewash, a member of the Health Select Committee and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adult and Childhood Obesity.
“If there has not been sufficient progress by 2020 we will use other levers to achieve the same aims.”
It’s not particularly inspiring, is it? Nor is that sentence especially instructive as to how ‘progress’ will be made and what’s next if targets are not met. And yet this is what we got from the much anticipated Childhood Obesity Plan – the document meant to set out the roadmap for tackling the staggeringly and terrifyingly high levels of overweight and obesity amongst our young people.
Much like Jamie Oliver, I was left distinctly underwhelmed and disappointed at what instinctively feels like a missed opportunity.
We shouldn’t underestimate the balancing act ministers have tried to perform with this document. On the one hand, something simply has to be done. The stakes are too high. Nearly a third of young people aged two to 15 are overweight or obese, facing a lifetime of poor health outcomes and placing huge potential demands on our public services, particularly the NHS.
On the other hand, we should not be looking for a nanny state solution. Nor should we be demonising the food and drink industry. Indeed, some of its members (like Unilever reformulating its ice-creams or Morrisons abandoning so-called guilt lanes) are pro-actively reformulating products, changing their marketing strategies and acting as good corporate citizens in the face of this public health threat. That good work should be encouraged – and there is a need for each of us to take personal responsibility for our health.
Ultimately, however, a generation of ‘nudge’ tactics hasn’t lowered childhood obesity levels. So while we need to encourage parents and children themselves to take responsibility, the obesity problem is now of such a scale that more radical solutions are required. And while it is entirely right that we encourage and create the opportunities for children and young people to be more active, we also need to robustly address what they are eating and drinking.
So it’s disappointing that the Department of Health, in publishing its childhood obesity plan, have overlooked and excluded a number of the recommendations made earlier in the year by Public Health England and endorsed by the Health Select Committee of which I am a member. Chief amongst these are restrictions on when and how ‘junk foods’ (and drinks) can be advertised. There have been cogent arguments made in favour of a watershed on such advertising. Similarly, there have been numerous recommendations on supermarket promotions. Both have been left out, and while I do not want to see businesses penalised, you have to ask why these recommendations – made by public health experts – have not been included.
Meanwhile, the sugar levy has been included, but it’s a very blunt instrument compared to less far-reaching rules on marketing and promotions that could have been included in the plan. And, actually, including these elements might have enabled ministers to look again at the levy, recognising the concerns of the industry but ensuring the requisite action is taken.
The other fundamental problem with the publication is that it doesn’t read like a strategy at all – perhaps that’s the reason it’s been pointedly named a plan. It reads like an aspirational document, littered with challenges, opportunities and encouragement rather than – with the exception of the sugar levy – finite commitments and timescales. Industry will be encouraged to reduce sugar levels in products by 20 percent, and if progress is unsatisfactory by 2020, other levers will be used. How will ministers encourage industry? And if it doesn’t work, what’s next?
Similarly, all schools will be encouraged to meet the School Food Standards. What if they don’t? And what if some schools offer their pupils food and drink options far outside what should be considered acceptable?
These are the types of questions the plan needed to answer, but failed to do so. And the result is that we do not have the robust approach we need to address the issue.
I understand and respect the concerns of the food and drink sector. And it would be wrong to impose a raft of punitive measures on its members that dramatically hit their sales. We need these businesses to be robust and responsibly do their part to tackle the problem. But if the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s is telling The Times that his industry needs compulsory targets rather than aspirations and volunteerism, you know something has gone wrong with what is an important document. We know that industry has a huge role to play in tackling obesity, and certainly something the All-Party Group I chair will examine is how that can be realised and how we can bring together the disparate views on this contentious issue.
In its conclusion, the plan claims “we are clear in our goals” and “the launch of this plan represents the start of a conversation, rather than the final word.” Reading it, I am unclear as to exactly what this document will achieve and whether it is capable of meeting such targets. Even the start of a conversation is somewhat disappointing as we needed a definitive plan of action, and this isn’t it. But at least if there is a willingness to have a conversation, we can hopefully build on this and get the plan right.