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MPs slam government strategy to cut child obesity

Supermarkets must reduce cut-price and multi-buy deals on unhealthy food

Mark Gould

Monday, 27 March 2017

A new report by the influential House of Commons Health Select Committee says the Government must do more to reduce the number of cut-price and multi-buy offers on unhealthy food to help combat childhood obesity.

It also calls for rules on junk food advertisements to be made tougher and says that government plans to tackle childhood obesity contain "vague statements" that are "inadequate" and that ministers had consistently rejected the committee's advice. The committee also recommends that the levy on sugary drinks should be extended to milk-based drinks that have added sugar.

The report calls for the government to set clear goals. Health Committee chair, Dr Sarah Wollaston, who is also a GP, said: "We are extremely disappointed that the government has rejected a number of our recommendations. These omissions mean that the current plan misses important opportunities to tackle childhood obesity.

"Vague statements about seeing how the current plan turns out are inadequate to the seriousness and urgency of this major public health challenge. The government must set clear goals for reducing overall levels of childhood obesity as well as goals for reducing the unacceptable and widening levels of inequality."

The main features of the government's long-awaited childhood obesity plan, published in October 2016, were a sugar levy and a voluntary target to cut sugar in children's food and drink by 20% by 2020.

The committee calls on the government to ensure that manufacturers pass on the cost of the levy to ensure that there is a price differential at the point of sale between high- and low- or no-sugar drinks. The committee feels that this would enhance the effect of the levy in encouraging low or no sugar choices and that failure to pass on the levy would result in consumers having to cross subsidise high-sugar products.

The committee has welcomed the tiered levy and said that this has already started to drive manufacturers to reformulate their drinks to contain less sugar.

The committee also welcomed moves by retailers "such as Aldi and Lidl" that have reduced the number of multi-buy deals and focused on a single price, in order to reduce consumption. Sainsbury's says it has removed multi-buys too. Public Health England will monitor the effects of the sugar levy.

Jo Bibby, Director of Strategy and Innovation at the Health Foundation, agreed with the committee that the government’s childhood obesity strategy "misses important opportunities to tackle root causes of this crisis".

She said the government needs to know if its strategy is working, and needs to act quickly if it is not, "but without clear targets and goals this will be impossible".

Responding to the report, public health minister Nicola Blackwood said: "We welcome the committee's recognition of the progress we have made in this area, delivering the most ambitious plan on childhood obesity in the world.

"It is backed by the soft drinks industry levy as well as the most comprehensive reformulation programme of its kind, anywhere."

She added: "Voluntary approaches have been shown to be very effective, but as we have repeatedly said, we have not ruled out further measures if results are not seen."

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