'Weak' childhood obesity strategy criticised by GPs

The highly-anticipated childhood obesity strategy has come under fire from the BMA and RCGP, who have accused the government of failing to introduce strict enough measures against food and drink companies.

The Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action report aims to significantly reduce the rate of obesity in children over the next 10 years. It comes as nearly a third of UK children are now overweight or obese.

Among its recommendations, the report announced that Public Health England (PHE) will run a programme challenging all sectors of the food and drinks industry to reduce the sugar content of their products by at least 20% by 2020, including by 5% in year one.

But it did not mention any sanctions or incentives to ensure companies meet the targets set out in this ‘challenge’, an omission criticised as 'weak' by the BMA.

The report also mentions the previously-announced soft drinks levy on producers and importers, which will bed down in two years’ time and aims to encourage companies to reduce the amount of sugar in their products.

The government said revenue from the levy will be invested into programmes promoting physical activity and balanced diets in schools.

Weigh all patients

It also calls on health professionals to ‘build on the good work they already do’ by ‘always’ bringing up their family’s diet when talking to parents.

Weighing all patients should become the ‘default’ when seeing patients, it added, and they should be referred to local weight management services, clubs and websites for extra help.

It announced that Health Education England (HEE) and PHE have launched advice for healthcare professionals to support them in raising these issues with patients.

Food labelling will also be overhauled to help consumers understand the different types of sugars in food products, it said.

But experts criticised the review for failing to impose stricter regulations on the food and drinks industries, particularly on the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks.

'Incredibly disappointing'

BMA board of science chairman Professor Parveen Kumar said it was ‘incredibly disappointing’ that the government had not taken a harder line on food and drinks companies.

She said: ‘Given the UK has the highest level of obesity in Western Europe with one in three children overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, the government should be doing everything in its power to tackle this problem.

‘Instead it has rowed back on its promises by announcing a weak plan rather than the robust strategy it promised.

‘Although the government proposes targets for food companies to reduce the level of sugar in their products, the fact that these are voluntary and not backed up by regulation, renders them pointless.

‘Targets are also needed to reduce levels of saturated fat and salt in products – these must be backed up by regulation.

‘The government must act now and take urgent action to address the ticking time-bomb that obesity poses to children and the NHS.’

Support for GPs

RCGP honorary treasurer, and incoming chairwoman, Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard welcomed ‘the aspirations of the report’ but added it could have gone further.

‘It's disappointing that some of the more radical initiatives expected, such as a ban on pre-watershed junk food advertising, that could potentially help to curb rising levels of childhood obesity, don't feature in today's report – but the measures that do are positive steps forward,’ she said.

‘We also welcome the support, and greater variety of treatment options, promised for GPs and other healthcare professionals to enhance training in nutrition, and in having what can be incredibly difficult conversations with patients about managing their weight and living healthy lifestyles.’

Photo: iStock

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