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Global alliance now needed to drive down obesity, argue experts

UK government has failed to tackle issue properly; and voluntary measures won’t cut it

Caroline White

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The UK action plan to curb the rise in childhood obesity is “severely limited,” and a global alliance of health bodies is now needed to get results, argue experts in an analysis* published in The BMJ today.

When it was published last August, the government’s serially delayed Childhood Obesity: a Plan for Action triggered an outcry among public health professionals, for not going anywhere near as far as they had hoped.

“Strong actions were conspicuous by their absence," and measures had been “watered down to an emphasis on voluntary actions by industry, consumers, and schools," point out Professor Mark Hanson, from the British Heart Foundation, Professor Neena Modi, President of the UK Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and Dr Edward Mullins, a trainee in obstetrics and gynaecology.

The report “fails to recognise that overweight and obesity in children and young people are driven by multiple modifiable biological, behavioural, environmental, and commercial factors, some of which operate before conception and birth,” they write.

Nor does it “recognise that the harm extends across generations,” and “this failure represents a major lost opportunity for effective prevention,” they contend.

A glaring omission was the set of evidence based interventions recommended by the World Health Organization Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO), they insist.

These include nutrient profiling to identify healthy and unhealthy foods, clearer food labelling, promoting physical activity in schools, as well as stronger controls on advertising, mandatory food reformulation, and nutrition education.

But healthcare professionals can’t make serious inroads into the obesity epidemic by themselves.

What’s needed is a global alliance of health bodies to coordinate much needed concerted action between the education and healthcare sectors, government, industry, and the public to take these recommendations forward, they suggest.

The new alliance should focus on a life course approach, and encompass relevant legislation, an accountability framework, sustained public engagement, and global advocacy campaigns, underpinned by research and evaluation, they say.

“We do not know why the UK government reneged on delivering the promised and much needed strategy, but we do know that the value of investing in long-term population health is often compromised by the short term focus of politics.

“We need ongoing advocacy and leadership by groups independent of governments and the development of approaches that recognise the necessity for a life course approach to achieving health across generations,” they write.

“We hope that the UK government would work with the alliance to build on their plan for action and develop it into a strategy for childhood and future societal health,” they conclude.

* Hanson M, Mullins E, Modi N. Time for the UK to commit to tackling child obesity. BMJ 2017;356:j762. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.j762

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