Labour’s London Assembly health spokesperson on obesity and devolution.
The government has bottled it. The Junk Food Giants have won.
The National Childhood Obesity Strategy was an opportunity to be bold and deliver the tools to meet the growing challenge of childhood obesity. Instead there is very little to call a strategy at all, and London’s children will pay the price for this government’s failure.
We often see obesity as the problem itself, but it is what it leads to which we tend to forget. Obesity reduces quality of life and increases mortality. It can affect mental health and can lead to diabetes, heart disease and related cancers. We’re seeing those horrendous ramifications on an acute level in the capital.
In London we have been waiting for the government to take action for years – so you can imagine the disappointment at the limited scope of what has been announced.
Of course there are things we welcome in the strategy, particularly the drive to increase physical activity for Primary School children, and the sugar tax George Osborne announced in the budget earlier this year. But the strategy’s lack of action on food promotions and advertising, especially new forms of advertising to children, is hugely disappointing.
Advertisements are becoming increasingly interactive. “Advergames” – video games which advertise a product or company – have the potential to collect and use a wide spectrum of data, enabling the programmes to refine and better target their audience. The addictive nature of games is exactly why large food companies spend money developing and placing these games. Our children form the intended audience in many of these advertising campaigns, and the implications for their health is only too plain to see.
Not only did the government’s strategy offer no real plan to clamp down on irresponsible advertising of this kind, but its unambitious approach to addressing obesity comes as a blow for localism.
We were hoping for more devolved powers to allow metro mayors and local councils to take a tailored approach to tackling childhood obesity locally – for example, by using planning and licensing regulations to curb fast food shops along school routes. Devolved powers might also be extended to allow for stronger local controls on the location of advertising in order to reduce the exposure of school children to junk food advertisements. The government’s offering didn’t represent a solid action plan to allow bespoke solutions to a complex problem; what it did represent was a series of missed opportunities.
This watered down strategy also formed a blow for the NHS. It is well documented that the NHS has a funding and capacity crisis. The only way to save the NHS is to reduce the number of people suffering chronic illness. Shockingly, the NHS spends more on obesity, and the treatment of resulting co-morbidities, than the UK does on police and fire and judicial services combined. The estimated cost of obesity to the NHS is £5.1bn. The government’s failure to set out a proper agenda to tackle obesity is also a failure to impede the financial ramifications of this growing crisis on our under resourced health services.
Lastly, the government’s shoddy attempt at an obesity strategy came as a particularly strong blow for London.
The capital has the highest rate of childhood obesity in England and the highest rate among any other peer city in the world. That’s right: London has higher rates of childhood obesity than Hong Kong, Paris or New York. In London almost 1 in 4 children in reception, and 1 in 3 children in year 6, are overweight or obese. This is a tragedy.
Parents have a key role to play in ensuring their children can access healthy meals, but there is no getting away from the fact that obesity takes a firmer grip on some sections of society than others. Obesity affects London’s poorer communities and BAME communities far more than it does more privileged groups. This further divides a city which already suffers from shocking health inequality. Responsibility and voluntary measures have completely failed: a stringent approach from government was necessary to stop the growing obesity crisis.
Whilst that has failed to materialise, we have learnt a lot about the way Theresa May wants to approach localism and devolution, and about her approach to those with large vested interests. We have also learnt that this is a government who can’t be relied upon to step up to the mark and protect the health of our children.
Growing up in London is tough. You are surrounding by competing influences, a cultural mosaic and a variety of pressures, some good some bad. What the government has done is miss an opportunity to remove some pressure, help make our children healthier, and offer them a healthy, happy future.
Dr Onkar Sahota is a member of the London Assembly for Ealing & Hillingdon, a practicing GP in West London, and Labour’s London Assembly Health Spokesperson. He tweets as @DrOnkarSahota.