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Put children’s health, not private profits, at heart of policy

Departing CMO warns: children are drowning in a flood of unhealthy food and drink as obesity doubles in 30 years

Louise Prime

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Government policy must prioritise children’s health, not companies’ profits, the departing chief medical officer (CMO) insisted this morning. In her final report*, Professor Dame Sally Davies warned that today’s children are drowning in a flood of unhealthy food and drink options, compounded by insufficient opportunities for being active, and she called for immediate and concerted action to tackle the problem.

Dame Sally noted that in the last year of primary school, on average, six children out of a class of thirty are obese and a further four are overweight, twice as many as thirty years ago – and she added that obesity disproportionately affects children living in deprived areas and some ethnic minority groups.

She pointed out that the NHS has one million contacts with children every week, but too few health professionals are adequately trained and equipped to identify children and pregnant women who are overweight or obese; understand stigma and feel empowered to initiate conversations with children and families; and support and manage overweight or obese infants and children, including those with associated ill health.

She called on politicians and policy makers to take positive action now, to ensure through regulation that children grow up free from marketing, signals and incentives to consume unhealthy food and drinks, have access to healthy and affordable food, and have the opportunity to run, bike and play safely.

She said they should:

  • Introduce innovative policies that find the win-wins for children’s health and the private sector: e.g. continue private sector sponsorship of major sporting events, facilities and stars, but only allow advertising and sales of their most healthy products on site.
  • 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. Support teachers to do the right things. Food, drink and physical activity standards should be set and adhered to in all schools and nurseries.
  • 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, e.g. systematically link and share data on children’s weight to intervene early; share private sector data, such as supermarket sales data, with policy makers and researchers.
  • 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.

Dame Sally argued that although changing societal norms and behaviours might seem difficult, it can and must be done because as a society, we have a moral responsibility to uphold children’s rights – and she pointed out that, “From Queen Victoria’s reign to the present day, UK governments of all colours have legislated to protect our children’s health. Politicians were bold, they took on the critics and these laws changed children’s lives for the better.”

She said: “I want to see our children’s health, not companies’ profits, put at the forefront of government policy. It is every child’s right to live in a world that promotes, not harms, their health.”

*Time to Solve Childhood Obesity. An Independent Report by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, 2019.

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