The UK refuses to tackle obesity

Rachel Mantock
October 12, 2016

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for more countries to consider introducing taxes on sugary drinks, after it found that levies of 20% or more resulted in declines in both sales and consumption of sugary drinks. The UK government has approved a sugary drinks tax, but it won’t take effect until 2018.

The WHO’s findings highlight the shortcomings of the UK government’s childhood obesity strategy, published this summer. The watered-down document left many people dismayed and disappointed, particularly after top government officials pledged to address the issue. 

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised “draconian action” would be taken, while former Prime Minister David Cameron made addressing the issue a central plank of his second-term strategy. But his successor, Theresa May, has been too preoccupied with Brexit negotiations to say much on the matter.

Obesity is a serious problem: it costs the National Health Service (NHS) more than £4bn each year and threatens to bankrupt the public healthcare system. One in three children are overweight by the time they're 11-years-old, and the epidemic paves the way for diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other deadly and expensive maladies.

Downing Street and Public Health England initially proposed a crackdown on supermarket promotions, a reduction in the sugar and fat content of foods, a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks and restrictions on television ads for foods loaded with salt, sugar and fat. Several of these proposals were axed in the final report, which focuses on cutting sugar consumption and encouraging exercise.

Physical activity is only half the solution to the UK’s obesity problem. Without a healthy diet, people can’t outrun diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The report’s reduced emphasis on product advertising and promotions suggests ‘Big Food’ won the day. Large food companies unfailingly lobby against new rules and regulations that threaten to eat into sales of unhealthy products and erode their bottom lines. Companies are crucial to economic growth and prosperity, but their voices shouldn’t be the loudest in the debate about children’s health.

The report suggests food companies opt into sugar taxes and slash the fat, salt and sugar content of their products by 20 per cent by 2020, but there's no obligation. Of course, there's disagreement over the effectiveness of sugar taxes. Some experts argue that taxes won't reduce sales of sugary drinks and put a significant number of jobs at risk. Another concern is that they disproportionately affect poorer people, who are less able to stomach the higher costs and already have limited choices in the grocery store.

Attempts to control people's usage of legal products are understandably unpopular, prompting criticisms of governments as 'nanny states'. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, battled accusations of government overreach for his ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in 2002 and his failed attempt to limit the size of sugary drinks sold in restaurants, cinemas and elsewhere. However, the social and economic costs of the UK’s obesity crisis outweigh the impact on people’s freedom.

A less contentious policy would be to close loopholes in school-meal policies. Academies are currently able to opt out of school-food standards, meaning children may be eating poorly at school as well as home. The government should also work to make healthy foods more affordable and accessible across the country.

Stephanie Wood, the CEO of School Food Matters, believes the key to encouraging healthy eating is to educate young children about the importance of eating a balanced diet and explain where food comes from. It’s all about “just eating food, not too much and mostly vegetables”, she says. If children and parents alike followed her advice, we would all be a lot healthier.

Given the government’s half-hearted efforts to solve the obesity problem, it's up to parents and educators to take responsibility for children’s welfare.