Child obesity is a ‘national emergency’

Children Public Health

So what is Jeremy Hunt doing about it?

Obesity was a factor in more than 525,000 hospital admissions last year, and obesity rates have risen from 15% in 1993 to 27% in 2015. Child health experts describe the level of childhood obesity in the United Kingdom as a “state of emergency”.

As a GP with over 30 years’ experience, I can state that the vast majority of consultations are for conditions such as diabetes and heart disease – linked to lifestyle or diet. I would estimate that 50-70% of costs to the NHS would be not just reduced but eliminated if patients’ diet and exercise regimes were improved.

Children born since the 1980s are up to three times more likely than older generations to be overweight or obese by the age of 10. The number of overweight children admitted to hospital has risen from 872 in 2000 to 3,806 in 2009. And over the past decade, the UK has seen a four-fold rise in youngsters needing medical attention as a consequence of being obese.

I am distressed that poor diet is such a feature of the lives of our children and young people. Barring genetic or catastrophic disease, accidents and maybe the ageing process itself, our health is in our hands. Central to tackling this is creating an environment where it is normal, easy and enjoyable for children and young people to eat healthily.

At best, politicians pay lip service to the problem – at worst, they play politics.

Jeremy Hunt has described the rise in childhood obesity as a “national emergency” – and when he was appointed health secretary in September 2012, he promised a “game-changing” response.

It’s been more than four years since the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges submitted a 10-point plan, following a one-year review of the evidence on policies to tackle the obesity epidemic. Its proposals included a tax on sugary drinks, banning junk food advertising to children, restrictions on fast food outlets near schools and compulsory nutritional standards in hospitals.

The government published its childhood obesity plan for action in August 2016. The plan, heavily influenced by food and drinks lobbyists, was a watered-down version of proposals the government had been preparing to publish. Except for a levy on sugar-sweetened beverages, no other proposal has been implemented.

This week at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, Hunt repeated the same message – while wearing a Tate & Lyle lanyard. Prof Russell Viner, health promotion officer at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “It’s a really poor choice of sponsor and sends a very mixed message. On the one hand the government says it’s determined to tackle obesity and to bring in the sugar tax. On the other, they’re giving major prominence to a sugar company at their conference.”

According to Prof Robert Lustig, a child obesity expert at the University of San Francisco, sugar (including sweeteners) and processed carbohydrate are the biggest culprits in childhood obesity. He describes sugar as being addictive and toxic and has called for a ban on the sale of sugary drinks to under-17s and a consumer tax on any substance with added sugar.

I accept that the government has to tread a difficult line between telling us what to eat and letting “Big Food” feed us junk food and sugary drinks without any disincentive – but that’s what government is for. It took us far too long to agree to real action against smoking.

As cases of both type 2 diabetes and obesity continue to rise exponentially, Hunt must act urgently and decisively. The government needs to take more robust action to tackle the impact of deep discounting and price promotions on the sales of unhealthy food and drink. As a first step, the health secretary should accept and implement all the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges’ proposals as a matter of urgency.

Let’s deal with obesity now before it overwhelms the health service.

First published in the Guardian