The recent launch of the much delayed Childhood Obesity Strategy turned out to be something of a damp squib after being trailed as one of the most important health initiatives of our time.
With voluntary targets set to cut sugar in children’s food and drink by 5%, ultimately rising to 20% and a threat that Government will ‘consider alternative levers, if insufficient progress is being made’, the language of ‘should, might and we encourage’ is hardly going to promote a rush by suppliers in the food industry away from sugary drinks and junk food.
The reaffirmation that the sugar tax will continue was of course welcome, alongside the recognition of the importance of physical activity and some extra money for breakfast clubs. However, with one in three children leaving primary school overweight or obese this has serious implications for their long term health and their life chances. Obesity has health consequences with regard to cholesterol; blood pressure; diabetes; bone and joint problems and breathing. In the longer term it increases the risk of children becoming overweight adults, leading to ill health and ultimately earlier death.
Not only that but at a time of scarce resources it has long term implications for the public purse. With a £27B cost to the wider economy, including £6B of direct cost to the NHS, this may seem bad enough. However, projections suggest that this is set to rise to £50B by 2050, £10B of which will be a direct cost to the NHS.
With responsibility for public health having being transferred to local government on 1 April 2013 this has major consequences for councils in their role as community leaders. This is exactly the type of opportunity that exists to take upstream costs out of the system by investing in preventative measures now, rather than paying the heavy costs of curing health problems later on.
It is of course a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted approach but local authorities’ school meal services can play a major part in encouraging healthy eating behaviour from an early age. Local authority leisure facilities can also give the opportunity to children to get their 30 minutes of exercise within school time, alongside their 30 minutes out with, which the strategy does call for. Parks and playing fields can also contribute immeasurably to this. However, we all know that many of these very services have suffered hugely under the cuts of recent years.
Whilst the Childhood Obesity Strategy was a let-down and only brought limited additional funding to local government, councils need to continue to step up to their responsibilities in terms of the youngest members of their communities.