BMA calls for tough action to tackle childhood obesity in Scotland

School meals should adhere to strict guidelines on sugar and fat content, all unhealthy food and fizzy drinks vending machines in schools should be banned and there should be no junk food advertising or sponsorship. These are the some of the recommendations in the BMA’s report Preventing Childhood Obesity, launched yesterday [22 June 2005].

Worldwide over 22 million children under five are severely overweight. In the UK there are around 1 million obese children under 16 years of age. These soaring rates in obesity have lead to an increase in childhood type II diabetes and will lead to more future cases of heart disease, osteoarthritis and some cancers, says the report from the BMA’s Board of Science.

There is no precise figure of how much obesity costs the NHS in Scotland, but recent research identified that it could be in excess of £171m for the treatment of ill health caused by poor diet.

Estimates indicate that, if current trends continue, at least one fifth of boys and one third of girls will be obese by 2020. Therefore the cost to the health service is likely to increase unless measures are put in place to halt this growing problem.

In Scotland, nearly one in every three children is overweight by 12 years of age. According to a recent study of Scottish children, around half of 13 year olds drink sugary drinks and eat sweets every day, but less than one quarter eat vegetables every day. They also fail to take enough exercise with less than one third (28.3%) of 13 year old girls and less than half (46.3%) of boys meeting the guidelines for moderate to physical activity.

Dr Bill O’Neill, Scottish Secretary of the BMA, said:

"The recommendations in this report focus on actions that can be taken to prevent childhood obesity. There is no room for complacency; it is essential that the Scottish Executive listens to what doctors have to say. We know that parents want to do the best for their children and that our MSPs want to ensure that they have the tools to deliver. I hope that this report will help them to do that.

"The Scottish Executive is already attempting to address some of the key challenges outlined in this new BMA report with the creation of a variety of healthy living schemes in recent years. However as current evidence illustrates, Scotland’s children still have a very poor diet and much more must be done to tackle the growing obesity epidemic in our schools."

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Head of the BMA Science and Ethics, said:

“It is madness that at a time when children are being told to eat less and do more exercise, they go into school and are sold fizzy drinks and doughnuts and do less than two hours exercise a week. Children are being bombarded with mixed messages. On one hand they might learn about healthy eating at school and then they go home and spend hours watching TV and see celebrities eating McDonalds’ hamburgers, crisps or drinking fizzy drinks. Children and parents are surrounded by the marketing of unhealthy cereals, snacks and processed meals – this has to stop.”

Key recommendations3 in the report include the following:

  • The Government should mount a sustained public education campaign to improve parents’ and children’s understanding of the benefits of healthy living.
  • There should be mandatory nutrient and compositional standards for school meals. Maximum/minimum levels should be set for fat, sugar, salt, vitamins and minerals. In order to ensure compliance, the profile of health in Ofsted inspections should be raised.
  • The sale of unhealthy food and drink products from school vending machines should be banned in secondary and upper schools to continue the healthy eating message given in primary schools.
  • All schools should make free water available from clean and hygienic sources.
  • The Government should subsidise the cost of fruit and vegetables to encourage health eating.
  • All manufacturers should be legally obliged to reduce salt, sugar and fat in pre-prepared meals to an agreed level within a defined time frame.
  • There should be a ban on the advertising of unhealthy foodstuffs, including inappropriate sponsorship programmes, targeted at school children.
  • Celebrities and children’s television characters should only endorse healthy products that meet nutritional criteria laid down by the Foods Standards Agency.
  • There should be resources to allow children from any region within the UK to gain access to specialist regional obesity services.
  • The Government should increase funding and improve access to sport and recreation facilities within school and communities.
  • The BMA remains deeply concerned by the sale of school playing fields.

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