The NHS will incur huge costs if the obesity epidemic in the UK is not reversed. Many people may suffer from avoidable illnesses and die early. A UK obesity strategy is urgently needed. The government’s childhood obesity plan, which was promised for this autumn, has been leaked. Some small steps may be proposed. They will not be enough. A bucket of water won’t be enough to put out a forest blaze.
In the early 2000s, the problem of obesity was brought to the attention of British government ministers. Treasury was more concerned than the Department of Health. Ministers realized that a large portion of the additional resources allocated to NHS was being used to treat an increasing number of overweight or obese people. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, thought that supermarkets could fix the problem.
In 2008, Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister, wanted to introduce fundamental changes in the UK food system. So, he commissioned this report. When the information was published, the coalition government led by Conservative David Cameron was in power.
The report was divided into two parts. The first part showed that the UK’s food system is not sustainable from an ecological, economic, and nutritional perspective. The second depicted an idyllic future where all problems were solved. The plan for getting from here to there was lacking. The report’s content was not of interest to the coalition ministers. After a month, they forgot about the news.
Information and education are not sufficient.
Andrew Lansley, the Conservative Health Secretary, made a promise to the food industry that he wouldn’t impose any regulations they didn’t like. In 2011, instead of forcing the food industry into providing significantly healthier food and drinks, he invited it to participate in A Responsibility Deal. Under this deal, food companies agreed to reduce calories.
Very little progress was made. The government’s strategy assumed that obesity can and should be resolved by providing information and education.
The food labeling was more informative, particularly with the so-called front-of-pack labeling. Although consumers prefer traffic light labels on the front of food and beverage packs, companies did not want warnings to be displayed on their products. The selected colorless nutritional estimates. Lessons on healthy eating have been introduced to the national curriculum, and government websites offer advice on healthy diets.
Ads for junk food were banned during programs for children. However, this did not apply to programs for families, like soap operas that many children watch.
These measures did not reduce the rates of obesity and overweight among children. The number of children in school receiving treatment for obesity and other related conditions, such as type-2 diabetes, has continued to increase. The amount of information and education provided to children was clearly inadequate.
Ministers reluctantly conceded that children needed more than just education and information. So, a strategy for childhood obesity has been promised but not delivered.
The strategy leaked focuses on a single type of change: reformulation of processed food products by manufacturers to reduce the number of calories they deliver. The draft suggests only a voluntary reduction of added sugar by 20% by 2020. Consumer campaigners, however, had called for a mandatory 50% sugar reduction and 20% less fat.
The draft avoided the question of how to introduce more effective controls over the advertising and promotion of junk food for children. The draft merely suggests a second consultation, further delaying any action.
Reformulation can help, but more fundamental changes are needed. Food processors made money by buying cheap, abundant, and nutritious ingredients and turning them into expensive, scarce, and nutritionally deficient products. To solve the obesity problem in the UK, it will take more than just reformulating products to reduce sugars and fats by 20 or 50 percent.
David Cameron’s draft of a strategy was dubbed “pathetic” by Action on Sugar. This description is accurate, but I am concerned about what Theresa May will do to make it less pathetic. Many Brexit supporters want to weaken regulations, not strengthen them, but this would make obesity problems worse.