Signed, sealed, delivered: Obesity Health Alliance urges next UK government to prioritize children’s health
23 May 2023 --- The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) is demanding that UK political parties commit to addressing the high levels of excess weight in the country’s population. Today, the organization is “hand-delivering letters to the future leaders of the UK government,” including current prime minister Rishi Sunak, after YouGov national polling found the British public overwhelmingly in favor of political action to improve children’s nutrition.
The alliance – a group of leading health charities, campaign groups and Medical Royal Colleges – says it is “deeply concerned” that unless bold action is taken, excess weight will continue to drive inequality between poorer and richer UK citizens.
“Those on low incomes often live without access to healthy affordable foods, with local shops not offering a full range of ‘basic’ healthy options. Lower-income families have a high number of takeaways, less opportunity for active travel and greater exposure to advertising on TV and online,” Katharine Jenner, director of the OHA, tells NutritionInsight.
Moreover, the health crisis is expected to pile further pressure on the National Health Service (NHS). New research led by Dr. Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard estimates that supporting people living with obesity costs the NHS twice as much as supporting people with a healthy weight.
The OHA will present MPs from the Conservative Party, Labour Party and Liberal Democrats at the House of Parliament with its manifesto for the next general election (which will be held no later than January 2025) today, highlighting opportunities to protect children’s health.
“We have written to the potential next prime minister of the country with a simple request to address Britain’s obesity crisis and redesign a broken food system that puts profit before health,” says Jenner.
Prevention better than cure
The development comes a day after Labour Party leader Keir Starmer – who is currently the clear favorite to become the next UK prime minister – announced plans to rejuvenate the NHS with a preventative approach to public health as a feature of his party’s manifesto for the next general election.
Experts welcomed Starmer’s NHS mission speech but warned that new funds must be committed if fresh targets to improve the UK population’s declining health are to be achieved.
“We are encouraged to learn that Starmer’s health missions will have a significant focus on the role of prevention in delivering a sustainable NHS, with specific commitments on delivering the restrictions on junk food advertising,” comments Mhairi Brown, policy, public affairs and international projects lead at Action on Sugar and Action on Salt.
“While there was no commitment to extending the soft drinks industry levy to other categories, his government must find equally effective measures which incentivize the food industry to reduce the sugar and salt in their junk food products.”
“Labour is best placed to do this – the previous Labour government initiated a successful program to reduce levels of salt in food. Progress has since stalled under the Conservatives but must be reinvigorated with mandatory targets.”
Sugar tax extension?
The UK “sugar tax” or “Soft Drinks Industry Levy” is a tax on soft drinks introduced in 2018, which has raised funds to support initiatives like the National School Breakfast Programme. The initiative is widely seen as successful in reducing childhood obesity and health groups would like to see it expanded.
“We need policies that work to make the healthier choice the easier choice for everyone,” Jenner tells us. “The mandatory Soft Drinks Industry Levy showed us that regulatory levers can be highly effective in driving reformulation across whole categories.”
“The levy helped remove 30 g of sugar per household per week and raised over a billion to pay for school breakfast clubs and physical education equipment for those on low incomes. An analysis found that the levy had the greatest effect on less affluent consumers.”
“All that is required now is to build on the success of policies like the sugar tax. As individuals, we deserve to have more control over the food and drink that’s available and marketed to us, and the next government should lead on child health.”
The YouGov poll findings include:
- 80% of UK adults support the government banning advertising of unhealthy food on TV (79%) and online (81%) to kids.
- 68% of UK adults would support an industry levy being extended beyond soft drinks if the money supported children’s food and health initiatives.
- 79% of adults think the current government should generally be doing more to make sure that healthy food is affordable during the cost-of-living crisis.
- 77% of all adults think the funds from the sugar tax should be used directly to fund programs aimed at improving children’s health.
- 58% of adults would like their local council to be able to use planning laws to reduce the number of unhealthy food outlets in the local area.
- 76% of adults would like their local council to be able to restrict unhealthy food and drink advertising near places where children congregate, like schools.
The medical opinion
British Medical Association Board of Science chair professor David Strain adds: “As medical professionals, we can see first-hand the devastating effect that obesity is having on both the child and adult population in the UK. The serious risk of illnesses associated with obesity, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes, highlights just how life-threatening it can be.”
“Any future government must understand the importance of implementing laws and restrictions on the junk food industry that effectively curbs the population’s exposure to the advertising and marketing behind many unhealthy food choices impacting their health.”
By Joshua Poole
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