Time to Solve Childhood Obesity: An Independent Report by the Chief Medical Officer
10 October 2019
Today the outgoing Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies has released an independent report, which argues that childhood obesity is solvable, and all children have the right to live healthy active lives. We welcome the report and strongly support Professor Davies’ call to politicians to do their duty, be bold and take further action to protect and improve our children’s health.
Professor Davies makes several recommendations, including:
- Rebalance the food and drinks sold to favour healthy options, through regulation.
- Allow children to grow up free from marketing, signals and incentives to consume unhealthy food and drinks.
- Introduce innovative policies that find the win-wins for children’s health and the private sector
- Invest in and design the built environment to create the opportunities for children to be active and healthy
- Take action to improve: exercise and healthy weight in pregnancy, breastfeeding rates, and infant feeding.
- Ensure schools and nurseries play a central role, supported by Ofsted monitoring.
- Ensure our NHS and health sector workforce can deliver what our children and families need to prevent, manage and treat obesity, including having conversations about weight and tackling weight-related stigma.
- Make better use of data to guide practice
- Protect and prioritise our children’s health and rights while making trade deals. Their health and a healthy environment must come above company profits.
- Develop the evidence base to inform practice and policy
Professor Dame Sally Davies said: “The unavoidable fact is that over time our environment has become very unhealthy without us realising. Our children are impacted as a result and are now suffering from painful, potentially life limiting diseases. I refuse to believe that any adult – parent or otherwise – could argue this is acceptable.
“We need to rebalance our environment – our politicians need to be bold and help everyone embrace healthier life choices. No child should suffer from complications caused by an avoidable case of type 2 diabetes, yet this is our new normal. We can fix childhood obesity but we need the right level commitment to make the healthier choice the easy one.”
Sonia Pombo, Campaign Manager for Action on Salt says: “This independent report exposes how the food and drink industry is being allowed to shorten children’s lives by plying them with food full of salt, fat and sugar and advertising and promoting it irresponsibly. Changes to our living environment over recent years have made it all too easy for children to become overweight, eat too much salt and take insufficient exercise. This means the very real consequences of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes are now presenting in childhood which was unheard of 30 years ago.
"Professor Davies speaks for us all by saying the government must be bold, decisive and has a responsibility to act. We now urge the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, to commit Public Health England to setting new and ambitious salt targets for 2020, with strict monitoring mechanisms to ensure all members of the food industry comply.”
Katharine Jenner - Nutritionist and Campaign Director at Action on Sugar says: “Professor Davies’ brave call for ‘bold action’ is a beacon of hope and her sound recommendations are precisely what’s required if we are to ever achieve the government’s target to half childhood obesity in 10 years.
"Key to this, and outlined in Professor Davies’ report, is the urgent need to take unhealthy food and drink out of the spotlight by restricting promotions and marketing – this simply cannot be achieved without legislation. There is no magic bullet to reverse the rise in childhood obesity, but the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan was supposed to deliver a range of measures that could have a significant impact such as calorie reductions, a ban on junk food displayed at the checkouts and of energy drinks to children, calorie labelling on restaurant and café menus, and for the sugary drinks levy to be extended to sugar milk drinks.
"Legislation and fiscal measures are not always politically popular, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right; the unprecedented results of the sugary drinks levy speak for themselves.”
Ben Reynolds, Deputy CEO of food and farming charity Sustain, commented on the new report: “We welcome this report, which couldn’t come at a better moment when progress on the Government’s Child Obesity Plan seems to have stalled, with proposed restrictions on junk food promotions and advertising of similar products before 9pm getting lost along the way.
“But this report goes further than just regurgitating old suggestions. It proposes that we rethink how we tackle this issue, to consider the environment that kids grow up in, as much as the personal responsibility we should all take. Moreover it makes a very good case for Children’s right to food, and the necessary actions that stem from that, such as increasing the value of free school meals and uptake of healthy start vouchers which would help those who struggle the most to afford a healthy diet. We hope that Matt Hancock and Government take note, and action, on this set of proposals that they themselves commissioned”
Barbara Crowther, coordinator of Sustain’s Children’s Food Campaign, added: “We welcome the CMO’s focus on creating a level playing field in terms of regulation on advertising, marketing and labelling, given the very slow pace of voluntary reformulation, whilst companies find ever more sophisticated methods of getting their brands and products directly in front of children. Following the public backlash this last week over KP’s branding googly with the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Chief Medical Officer’s call to break the tie between sports sponsorship and unhealthy products is particularly timely.
“The recommendation to phase out marketing, advertising and sponsorship in public sector owned advertising and events would have the support from many local areas around the country. We’ve seen communities across the UK inspired to follow the Mayor of London’s leadership in restricting junk food adverts on Transport for London, and using public sites for healthier campaigns. We hope Government at very least now encourage the voluntary rollout of these restrictions across all parts of the public sector.”
On schools & nurseries
“Children spend 190 days of the year in school; we cannot underestimate their value and importance in supporting a happy, healthy childhood. We welcome the CMO’s alert that School Food Standards are neither mandatory on a universal basis in all schools and nurseries, nor are they independently monitored. This is something parents, teachers and governors alike have called for and we hope the Secretary of State for Education and OFSTED will sit up and take note that the CMO’s report clearly says they must do better.”
On tap water
“The need to make good food and drink more affordable, accessible and better advertised than unhealthy options runs through all these proposals – none more so on the proposal for water only schools and the CMOs support for our calls for a new wave of drinking fountains across the country. We’ve seen much appetite for our 50 fountains challenge, which we hope would lead to tens of thousands of new fountains around the country.”
“The report sends a clear message to businesses. In amongst the current chaos, businesses need certainty, and what this does is to propose a level playing field through regulation, so leaders aren’t left stranded by voluntary efforts that rarely work. Businesses will no doubt echo the need for any future trade deals not to undermine that progress that is being made in the UK, and the risks of being undercut by lower standard imports.”
Reform of VAT
“The Soft Drinks Industry Levy is already demonstrating the power of fiscal measures to incentivise a shift to healthier products and change consumer behaviour. The suggestion for considering reform of VAT along health lines is welcome, rather than through some arbitrary distinction between products. We would suggest that any review of VAT on food and drink goes further and considers the impact on the environment and nature, as we try not only to tackle child obesity but to avert the climate emergency, with food and farming casting a large shadow on both.”