A Tricky Subject
Certain subjects seem to run the risk of becoming so-called ‘political footballs’, and childhood obesity appears to be one of them. It’s so easy for one political party to announce a strategy for tackling the issue, only for the other to find fault and criticise before the same thing happens to them. When it comes to something so important to the health of the nation, the fact that politicians never seem to be able to find any common ground, to agree on anything or to at least come up with a series of basic reforms all parties can support is quite depressing.
With the snap general election taking place on 8th June, I’ve become very interested in what the major parties have been saying about their strategies for tackling childhood obesity. Most of the time the ideas they put forward sound great, but all too often they’re not backed up by cash or legislation. Because it’s so easy for both sides to pick holes in each other’s policies, little ever seems to actually get done beyond the making and breaking of promises, and that may well prove the case at this election.
The Situation So Far...
Back in August 2016 the Conservative government launched its childhood obesity programme, which it said would aim to significantly reduce obesity over the next decade by working with schools, the NHS, local communities and the food industry. The programme would launch an initiative to cut the amount of sugar in foods popular with children, introduce a tax levy on soft drinks, improve the quality of school meals and help children get at least an hour of exercise a day.
Unfortunately too few of the proposals have since been enforced by legislation. One of my own food campaigning heroes is chef Jamie Oliver, who described the childhood obesity programme as a ‘travesty’ and ‘a terrible job’, saying the Prime Minister, Theresa May, had let everyone down by not backing up her proposals by law. Too many of the government’s recommendations were simply that – recommendations. With the levy on sugary drinks the only mandatory part of the programme, it’s hard to imagine the food industry putting public health ahead of profits. They’re in business, after all, and which companies will want to tinker with the recipes and change the taste of the sugar-filled, carb-rich products people so clearly love to buy?
Jamie’s views were backed up by The Children’s Food Campaign, who described how parents, teachers and health professionals had all been in touch to complain to them about the ‘weaknesses of the childhood obesity plan’. Since the soft drinks levy was announced, Education Secretary Justine Greening has said it will raise £415m for school funding of sports and healthier eating in 2018-19 and incentivise others in the food and drinks industry to make their products healthier. Whether that will work remains to be seen.
So far during campaigning, the Conservatives have said they will continue with their childhood obesity programme and Labour has said that its main aim is to halve childhood obesity within a decade if elected, suggesting that they would create a £250m fund by cutting the number of NHS management consultants. This cash pot would be used to increase funding for school nurses and counsellors in both primary and secondary schools, something I’ve already said is much-needed if schools are to get more involved.
With less than one month to go until the general election, the Labour party also announced proposals to enforce a ban on all adverts for junk food and sweets from programmes before the watershed. While such adverts are already banned from shows specifically aimed at children, this could cover those ‘family friendly’ shows such as The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and the major soaps, many of which are watched by children and teenagers. One thing that’s often overlooked in the debate on advertising is just how much influence parents have on their children’s diets – even as adults, many of us are equally vulnerable to the appeal of food adverts, so banning them from family shows (better still, altogether) could also have a massive impact on both child and adult obesity levels.
As far as I can tell there have been no major policy announcements on this subject from any of the other parties, and even the suggestions laid out by both Labour and the Conservatives seem a little vague. While there are, of course, lots of equally important things which need addressing in their manifestoes, for something as important as child obesity to gain so little genuine interest from all the main parties seems depressingly familiar.
There are good ideas from both sides, and putting them all together into some sort of programme which can be properly enforced and back up by legislation would be a dream come true, whoever wins come June 8th. It would be nice to think that this election could be a game-changer for childhood obesity, but I fear the pettiness and negativity around the issue will once again get in the way of real progress.