UK Chief Medical Officer calls for tough action to tackle childhood obesity

UK Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, has called for snacking on public transport to be banned and extra taxes to be placed on unhealthy foods, in a bold effort to tackle the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic.  

child transportAlinute Silzeviciute | Shutterstock

In a report calling for tough action against junk food and eating and drinking on public transport, Davies has said the government must start prioritizing children’s health over company profits. She also called for tighter regulations to be placed on the marketing of unhealthy foods and takeaways.

In her final report as CMO for England, Davies said:

Today’s children are drowning in a flood of unhealthy food and drink options, compounded by insufficient opportunities for being active… I want to see our children’s health, not companies’ profits, put at the forefront of government policy. It is every child’s right to live in a world that promotes, not harms, their health.

If ministers were not bold, she added, they would fail to meet the target of halving obesity rates by 2030: "The unavoidable fact is that over time our environment has become very unhealthy without us realising. Our children are now suffering from painful, potentially life-limiting disease. Our politicians need to be bold and help everyone embrace healthier life choices."

The obesity epidemic

The proportion of children who are obese and overweight has doubled over the last three decades and about one-third are obese by the age of 11, with a growing number of those cases classified as severely obese.

Obesity increases the risk for a range of diseases, including cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 100 children per year are now diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a condition that used to be considered an adult health problem.

Each week, the equivalent of 13 school buses of children are admitted to hospital for tooth extraction under general anesthetic because of decay caused by sugar, says Davies, adding: “That’s damaging children, costing the NHS.”

She likened, focusing on weight loss without changing the food environment to “treating people for cholera and then sending them back into their homes where the water is still contaminated with cholera.”

Politicians may no longer fear accusations of “nanny statism”

Davies said her report is targeted at politicians and policymakers, now and in the future, and is intended to reframe the issue. The public wants the government to tackle childhood obesity, she says, meaning politicians need no longer fear accusations of “nanny statism.”

I think the polling data is pretty clear. The public think it’s time that governments acted to protect their children… It’s the right of children to live in a healthy environment and with proper nutrition. What we’ve done to date has not stopped the problem.”

UK Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies

Her report says England was “nowhere near” meeting the government’s target of halving childhood obesity by 2030. It puts forward several radical taxations, legislative and other changes that should be made.

They include banning the promotion and advertising of junk food, banning eating and drinking on public transport (except for water, breast-feeding and medical conditions and adding VAT to zero-rated foods such as cakes and junk foods high in salt, sugar and fat.

Banning eating and drinking on public transport?

Probably the most eye-catching proposal is the banning of eating and drinking on public transport. This is exclusively focused on children using trains, buses and metro networks to get to and from school, so would not apply to inner-city trains with buffet cars. The aim is to discourage snacking and the ban would also apply to adults, who Davies wants to model good behavior to children. There would be exemptions for people who need to eat or drink for medical reasons, breastfeeding would be allowed and everybody would be able to drink water.

Extending the sugar tax to milk-based drinks

Davies thinks that tax is an important lever ministers could use and pointed to the success of the sugar tax, which has reduced sugar consumption by more than one-fifth and taken 30,000 tonnes of sugar per year out of the nation’s diet. Figures released last month showed this was a combined effect of people choosing lower-sugar drinks and industries changing the sugar content of their products. Now, Davies would like this sugar tax to be extended to milk-based drinks.

Banning the marketing of unhealthy foods

The marketing of unhealthy food is big business for advertisers, with about £300 million a year spent on the promotion of soft drinks, confectionery and sweet and savory snacks. That represents almost half the total expenditure on food and drink advertising and compares to just £16m spent on advertising fruit and vegetables.

TV and online advertising of junk food is already restricted to a degree, but Davies wants to extend it to a complete ban on any advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks.

Dame Sally receives backing of health experts

The government should make full use of all the levers at its disposal to tackle obesity. Some politicians may baulk at the idea of the 'nanny state', but research suggests these types of intervention may enjoy stronger public support than they often assume."

Sally Warren, the King's Fund think tank

Dame Parveen Kumar, of the British Medical Association, also agreed that the government would "let down" children if it did not act.

Katharine Jenner, at Action on Sugar, said Davies’s “brave call for bold action is a beacon of hope” and that unhealthy foods and drinks urgently need to be taken out of the spotlight by restricting promotions and marketing  ̶  a move that could only be achieved through legislation, she added.

Health secretary, Matt Hancock, praised Davies, saying she “has done more than anyone to promote the health of the nation over a decade as CMO… Her parting report is no different and we will study it closely and act on the evidence.”

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally has a Bachelor's Degree in Biomedical Sciences (B.Sc.). She is a specialist in reviewing and summarising the latest findings across all areas of medicine covered in major, high-impact, world-leading international medical journals, international press conferences and bulletins from governmental agencies and regulatory bodies. At News-Medical, Sally generates daily news features, life science articles and interview coverage.

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