Outgoing Chief Medical Officer Calls Time on Obesity

Peter Russell

October 10, 2019

Politicians must take decisive and urgent action to prevent a childhood obesity crisis, the UK's most senior doctor said.

In her final report before she stepped down this month as England's Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Prof Dame Sally Davies said the Government was nowhere near achieving its promise to halve childhood obesity in England by 2030.

Her report called for a range of measures, among them extending the soft drinks industry levy to include sweetened milk-based drinks, banning eating and drinking on urban public transport, and encouraging people to be more physically active.

Prioritising children's health would improve their lives, support the NHS, and help tackle rising rates of type 2 diabetes, the report said.

Snacking

High streets were "flooded with cheap unhealthy food and drink options", the report said, with, on average, children now consuming three unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks a day, containing 7 teaspoons of sugar.

Meanwhile, children were "dazzled" by companies competing for their attention. In 2017, more than £300 million was spent on advertising soft drinks, confectionary, and snacks, compared to £16 million spent on advertising fruit and vegetables.

Twice as many young children today are overweight or obese than 30 years ago.

Today, six children out of a class of 30 in their last year of primary school are obese, while a further four are overweight.

Figures released today by Public Health England showed rates of severe obesity among 10 to 11-year olds had scaled record highs for the fourth consecutive year.

Data from the 2018 to 2019 National Child Measurement Programme showed 4.4% of year 6 children as severely obese.

Social Deprivation

Dame Sally's report stressed a widening gap in obesity levels over the past decade between the most and the least deprived groups, with projections that unless the trend was reversed, as many as 1 in 3 children in the most deprived areas would be obese by 2030.

She stressed that there was no "magic bullet" for solving the crisis, and that the solution lay with a mix of initiatives from industry and the public sector.

The report, Time to Solve Childhood Obesity , called for children's health to be prioritised over company profits.

She argued that changes to the environment had led to a situation in which shops were stocked with unhealthy foods, aided by a VAT system that was not always geared to reward healthy food purchases. The report called for healthy foods to continue to be VAT-free, while the tax would be payable on all unhealthy items.

Dame Sally said: "The unavoidable fact is that over time our environment has become very unhealthy without us realising. Our children are impacted as a result and are now suffering from painful, potentially life limiting diseases.

"I refuse to believe that any adult – parent or otherwise – could argue this is acceptable."

Dame Sally argued that healthier food should be made more accessible, and that children should be encouraged to play, cycle, and explore.

"We need to rebalance our environment – our politicians need to be bold and help everyone embrace healthier life choices," she said. "No child should suffer from complications caused by an avoidable case of type 2 diabetes, yet this is our new normal.

"We can fix childhood obesity but we need the right level commitment to make the healthier choice the easy one."

Other recommendations included:

  • Phasing out any marketing, advertising, and sponsorship of unhealthy foods and drink at all major public venues

  • Ensuring that schools provided healthy meals at a low price

  • A cap on the amount of calories per serving for all food and drink sold by the 'out of home' sector

  • Making free drinking water more readily available

Child Health Campaigners Welcomed the Report

The recommendations were widely welcomed. Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health commented: "The report rightly challenges the food industry and government to step up and accept responsibility for its role in the obesity epidemic."

Prof Dame Parveen Kumar, chair of the British Medical Association's board of science, said: "It is a tragedy that so many children are being exposed to and tempted by junk food, jeopardising the healthy start in life they deserve.

"As this report makes clear, bolder, more ambitious action is needed to improve child health."

Sally Warren, director of policy at health think-tank, The King's Fund, said: "The Government should make full use of all the levers at its disposal to tackle obesity.

"Some politicians may balk at the idea of the 'nanny state', but research suggests these types of intervention may enjoy stronger public support than they often assume. Around two thirds of adults support the sugar tax and restricting junk food advertising, so there is a real opportunity for the Government to build on Dame Sally's report and turn these ideas into action."

Mick Armstrong, chair of the British Dental Association, commented: "Tooth decay and obesity are preventable, and fuelled by deprivation and sugar, but there's been little effort to join the dots on policy.

"Ministers have a duty to set out a coherent plan to tackle these grotesque inequalities."

Caroline Bovey, chair of the British Dietetic Association, warned: "Many of these proposals will require not just political will, but resources and money.

"Public Health budgets have been cut significantly in the past 10 years, and the recently promised increases will do very little to fill the significant funding hole that now exists."

Prof Dame Sally Davies stood down as CMO this month and was succeeded by Prof Chris Whitty.

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