Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity.
I warmly welcome the indications that the Prime Minister is about to take further action on obesity.
The greater risks run by people with obesity in combating COVID-19 have made this issue even more urgent but the truth is that even before the pandemic the UK had a serious obesity problem.
The national child measurement programme data shows that ten per cent of children in Reception were obese in 2018-19 and that had more than doubled to over 20 per cent by year Six. The Guys and St Thomas’ charity report ‘Bitesize’ shows that London has a higher rate of childhood obesity than New York and a rate nearly four and a half times higher than Paris.
Children’s health really matters, as does equality of opportunity. Overweight and obese children grow up to be overweight and obese adults.
There is not only leads to a significant cost to the NHS and the taxpayer, but it’s also a question of social justice, as 27 per cent of the most deprived children in Year Six are obese compared with under 12 per cent of their least deprived classmates.This is an area that politicians often fear to tread in but it’s a vital public policy issue and we lack courage if we ignore it.
I think that our guiding principle should be to make the right choice the easy and affordable choice for as many people as possible. It doesn’t help when children are bombarded with advertising for unhealthy products which they pressure their parents to buy. That’s why getting the 9pm watershed in place against the advertising of junk food to children is so important.
We also need more British supermarkets to follow the example of the Dutch supermarket Marqt, which has banned the marketing of unhealthy products to children. Their CEO says that tempting children to choose unhealthy products doesn’t fit with how they want to help their customers. Unfortunately, many people don’t have much of a choice with those unable to get to supermarkets easily often being faced with local shops, with a poor choice of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Some areas have massive concentrations of takeaways. In 2017 there were 400 in Southwark, a seven per cent increase on 2014 and this was the borough revealed in 2018 as having the first neighbourhood in the country where a majority of children leaving primary school were overweight or obese. The Food Foundation have also pointed out the across much of mainland Europe, the healthy choice is often the cheaper one, yet bizarrely and worryingly the opposite is commonly the case in the UK.
Local authorities have a role to play as well. The Amsterdam healthy weight programme launched by Eric Van der Burghas, the centre-right deputy mayor of the city, focused on schools, the health service, planning, sports, charities and the business sector.
The Health Select Committee went to see what he was doing and he told us that he went to a summer sports programme one year and saw a young girl who couldn’t do a forward roll because she was so overweight. When he realised how widespread the problem was he made it a priority. We need more leaders with his tenacity.
Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to have clearer food labelling. We need the same in restaurants and the takeaway sector. Shops should promote healthy food, not junk food. The hugely successful sugar tax should be extended to more products, with the proceeds going towards child health. Energy drinks should not be sold to under-16s either.
We also must not abandon those whose lives have been ruined by obesity. Bariatric surgery can be life changing for those who have tried everything else without success. Professor John Wass of Oxford University tells me that the number of bariatric operations in England is below 5,000 whereas in France, with a significantly lower prevalence of obesity, the figure is 60,000. Similar comparisons can be made with Sweden.