Trick or treat: how the Obesity plan changed

The childhood obesity strategy was watered down, Theresa May “dismantling” David Cameron’s ambitious plan in no fewer than 36 days. Channel 4’s Dispatches team had been handed a June draft of the plan: “a more ambitious plan that never saw the light of day”, reads the press release promoting the programme.

At the heart of this original plan was a commitment to halve childhood obesity within the next decade, which would have seen 800,000 fewer obese children. Tough new policies were proposed in the document.

The foodservice sector, for example, would be forced to carry calorie information on all menus. Supermarkets would in turn face restrictions on the promotion of unhealthy food and drink. The government was also prepared to get tough on advertising with “measures to further reduce families’ exposure to adverts for unhealthy food… This will mean that fewer of the shows watched by many of our children - including for example some popular Saturday night entertainment – will contain adverts for unhealthy food.”

Though there was a certain irony this story broke on Halloween (whilst our increasingly obese kids were huffing and puffing between houses in their neighbourhoods fuelled on a heady cocktail of sugary treats and sweets) the findings didn’t come as a shock.

A draft given to The Times back in July showed that dilution of the strategy had already begun. A target to cut sugar by 20% by 2025 remained, but there was no suggestion that the marketing of junk foods would be further restricted. That leak came a little over a week after May took up residence at number 10 Downing Street; campaigners criticised the package as “pathetic”.

The strategy isn’t finished, May’s spokesman said at the time, and wasn’t likely to be until the autumn. But four weeks later, on August 18, there it was – the government’s plan to “significantly reduce” England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years. But where had the target to halve obesity rates gone?

Dispatches identified a number of other key proposals that disappeared from the June paper they’d received. There was also no sign of any tough new marketing restrictions, or new laws on calorie labelling. The levy on sugary drinks had survived, as had the target to cut sugars in manufactured foods, though it isn’t going to be compulsory.

Health campaigners had already come to terms with the fact they’d been tricked into believing that the “game-changing plan” promised by the health secretary Jeremy Hunt remained a possibility. Still, it was a bitter pill to swallow, as they leafed through the plan that might have been in front of the Channel 4 cameras.

Once he’d got over his indignation at not having seen this “secret” draft before now, Jamie Oliver threw himself into full campaigner mode. “Obesity is killing huge amounts of people, well before their time,” he said. “This is a war, if you are worried about the thing that hurts British people the most, it ain’t ISIS, right?”

Oliver wants May to rip up her plan and start again. He noted the timing of the announcement in August – next to the A-level results and during summer recess – “screams out we don’t care”. He may have a point. Dispatches asked the Department of Health for an interview with a minister, but the chance to defend the plan (and explain how it changed so dramatically under the new PM) was declined. A spokesperson for DH maintained the strategy is “ground-breaking” and “no other developed country has done anything as ambitious”. Fine words, but it is not just campaigners that are itching to see action.

The British Retail Consortium wanted mandatory targets to level the playing field. Supermarkets felt they were moving hard and fast on reformulation whilst other parts of the food industry slobbed around on the sofa, pushing products that remained high in fat, sugar and salt. Progress was, as Footprint has previously reported, patchy.

It’s not yet clear what the foodservice industry thinks of Theresa May’s obesity plan – the major caterers and the likes of the British Hospitality Association remain tight-lipped. Last month’s Footprint Forum suggested the looser agreement in place will offer the flexibility to innovate.

However, there’s also an argument that this approach didn’t work with the Responsibility Deal; and there’s a distinct chance that everyone will be back around the table in two years’ time. Government has to prove the voluntary targets and a new reporting framework work, said BRC senior external affairs advisor Fintan Hastings. “Industry was left to carry the Responsibility Deal,” he told Footprint. “Government needs to own this plan.”

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