A ban on cartoon or fictional characters promoting unhealthy food, and a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising, are among measures suggested by the UK government to tackle childhood obesity. But will such measures be enough to help?
The House of Commons Health Committee also recommended a ban on confectionery and other less healthy foods in promotions at the end of supermarket aisles. The committee also said it should be easier for local authorities to restrict the number of fast food outlets in a particular area.
Chaired by Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the NHS, the committee is particularly targeting high fat, sugar and salt products – be they sold by retailers or foodservice operators.
The recommendations come days after new analysis suggesting one in 25 children in England aged 10 or 11 are severely obese. These findings come from the Local Government Association, which analysed Public Health England figures.
Along with measures for retail, advertising and the foodservice industry, there were also details of how the government can be doing more. Suggestions range from improving services for children already living with obesity to an additional tax on sugary milk drinks such as milkshakes, which are not covered under the current soft drinks sugar tax.
As to whether or not these types of measures – even if implemented – would be enough to help, previous analysis of US federal data published in Pediatrics offers some insight.
The data show that a combination of social ills contribute to rising obesity in US children. So measures such as cutting down on fast food outlets in poorer areas appear to be justified. However, it is clear that neither tax increases nor targeting advertising nor marketing will tackle root causes of what has arguably become the biggest public health problem of several generations.
The causes of childhood obesity remain deceptively simple – a mixture of poor diet and a lack of physical activity. But there are exacerbating factors that connect to this increase, and they include work-related time scarcity, economic insecurity, lack of education, and a lack of access to fresh, whole foods.
A review of 54 studies by researchers from the University of Minnesota found that the least-wealthy neighbourhoods had the least access to supermarkets that carry fresh produce and other healthy food. The study also found that families on lower incomes often live in relatively disadvantaged neighbourhoods with a lack of transportation, with low childcare availability and an overabundance of fast food chains and convenience stores full of expensive and processed, rather than high-value fresh food.
Those who did have easy access to supermarkets with fresh produce tended to have healthier diets – being more likely to hit fruit and vegetable consumption targets by 32% with every additional supermarket in their census tract.
This was not picked up by the UK committee; it focused on where unhealthy food was placed and promoted, rather than ease of access to retailers which sell healthier food in the first place.
Childhood obesity rates have been rising for decades, worldwide. More than half of adults and one in six children are overweight or obese in OECD countries. The share of children who are obese or overweight at 15 ranges from 10% in Denmark to 31% in the US.
Current estimates suggest that nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese in the UK and younger generations are becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer.