Government’s new childhood obesity plans ‘kicking the can down the road’

Children watching TV

Dr Emma Boyland is a Senior Lecturer in appetite and obesity at the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society and advises the World Health Organization on food marketing policy in the European region and beyond.

Chapter 1 of the Government’s Obesity Plan (formerly an ‘obesity strategy’) was launched in 2016 with great fanfare, but received a lukewarm (at best) reception from the public health community. At the root of their frustration was the apparent ‘watering down’ of promises for ‘brave and bold action ’ across a raft of measures to tackle childhood obesity, including school nutrition standards, product labelling and food marketing restrictions. Even the Chair of the Health Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, was robust in her criticism of the Government for “ditching action on advertising and marketing despite the clear evidence of its influence”.

Fast forward two years and another childhood obesity inquiry has taken place, where once again I was invited as an expert witness to give evidence on the research that would underpin any policy action in relation to food marketing to children. Alongside representatives of the Obesity Policy Research Unit and the Obesity Health Alliance, the Advertising Standards Agency, the Advertising Association and Living Loud (a health charity) I outlined the evidence base demonstrating that food advertising on TV and other media negatively affects children’s food preferences, choices and consumption. In making the case, I highlighted work conducted here at the University of Liverpool among other sources we have contributed to.

The resulting Chapter 2 includes a 9pm watershed on TV advertising of high fat, sugar, salt (HFSS) products but not as a commitment to act, merely a promise of consulting on this issue before the end of 2018. Similarly, stronger restrictions on non-broadcast marketing of unhealthy foods to children are ‘to be considered’, not acted upon now.

While it is promising to finally see advertising and promotions included in the plan itself (with our work cited as supporting evidence), it is disappointing once again to see that the plan holds back from committing to the bold action we are all crying out for. The 2016 plan was said to be the ‘beginning of a conversation, not the end’ but as childhood obesity continues to rise in the most deprived areas of the UK (and with no reductions in even in the most affluent areas) we cannot afford to keep delaying on actions that would create a healthier food environment for us all. Parents’ attempts to instil healthy habits are continually being undermined by the actions of the food industry who use engaging food marketing tactics to tempt and persuade children to acquire and consume highly appealing branded foods and drinks, packed with fats and sugar. Parents need urgent support, if the healthier choice is the visible, easier and most affordable choice, more will make it.

Professor Jason Halford, President Elect of the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) and Health, Behaviour and Consumption Theme lead for N8 Agrifood, agrees that urgent action is needed, adding: “In the context of food supply and the potential impact of changes in international trading arrangements for the UK, it is essential we act now to safe guard child health not only by activity promoting nutrition but also by directly addressing the pervasive food marketing environment which actively undermines it.”

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