Richard Vautrey: Obesity plan is a missed opportunity

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IN Leeds, where I work as a GP, one in 10 children in reception class, so those about four and five-years-old, are already obese – not a little overweight, not puppy fat, but obese.

Alarmingly this rises to one in every five children by the time they reach year six, when they are 10 or 11, and sadly the situation is a lot worse in many other parts of the country.

Given this worrying fact, the Government should be doing everything possible to reverse the growing problem. Instead it has gone back on its pledge to protect the next generation by announcing a weak and brief obesity plan that fails to address the key issues, rather than the robust strategy it promised.

The fact that they’ve published what should have been a landmark initiative in August when media attention is focused elsewhere suggests that the Government recognises their failure to truly deliver a healthier environment for children.

Overweight children become overweight adults and as a result are far more likely to develop conditions such as diabetes at a younger age than we’ve seen in previous generations.

Diabetes is a passport to many other serious illnesses and outcomes such as kidney and heart disease, blindness and even limb amputation. It’s costing the NHS a massive £14bn a year to treat, that’s 10 per cent of the NHS budget or £1.5m an hour. The number of people with diabetes rises year on year and is set to reach four million by 2025. We must give our children the right start in life so they can avoid conditions like this later on.

Sadly we live in a society that encourages weight gain and obesity – that encourages our children to get fat. Poor diet has become a feature of our children’s lives, with junk food more readily available, and food manufacturers and retailers bombarding children with their marketing every day for food and drinks that are extremely bad for their health.

As a dad, I know how difficult it is when your children won’t stop nagging for the crisps they ‘really really need because they’re starving’ even though they weren’t hungry at dinner time, or how every wait at a supermarket check-out can turn into a negotiation about whether or not they’re allowed the sweets that are displayed there to tempt them. Our children’s choice of what they eat is influenced everywhere they turn.

This makes it all the more disappointing that the Government has ignored the calls from food campaigners and health organisations, including the British Medical Association and the Obesity Health Alliance, to include any plans for tighter controls on marketing and promotion.

Addressing the commercial influences that have such a strong impact on diet is key – ranging from the way unhealthy food and drinks are promoted and advertised, to the industry influence on the development of food and nutrition policies.

GPs and doctors across the NHS see the impact of this crisis every day. We see babies and young children who are overweight and already suffering the consequences. They may be struggling to keep up with other children, they develop more infections and can be subjected to bullying which impacts on their psychological wellbeing and development. Although the Ggovernment has proposed 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.

Food manufacturers and retailers have already had ample opportunity to develop meaningful commitments to reduce the amount of added sugar and other unhealthy content in their products, yet all we have seen is a range of ineffective voluntary measures.

The introduction of a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks after years of pressure from the BMA and other campaigning groups is a huge step forward, but just one piece of the jigsaw of actions that need to be taken. This alone is not a solution to the growing epidemic.

For some time, the Government promised a robust and comprehensive solution. It has now published its strategy – a weak, disappointing, and somewhat brief plan that fails to include half of the measures health leaders and food campaigners have been desperately urging.

The Government has missed an opportunity to protect the next generation from the impact of obesity. Ministers must act quickly, stand up to the food industry, and put our children first.

Dr Richard Vautrey is a Leeds GP and deputy chair of the BMA’s GP committee.