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Childhood obesity: follow-up

Seventh Report of Session 2016–17

We looked at childhood obesity in the autumn of 2015, anticipating the publication of the Government’s childhood obesity plan. We concluded that the scale and consequences of childhood obesity demand bold and urgent action, and that if the Government fails to act, the problem will become far worse. We judged the evidence to be sufficiently strong to justify introducing all the policies we recommended, and we urged the Government to take action to implement them.

The Government’s plan was published in August 2016. Campaigners and other commentators on childhood obesity were largely underwhelmed by its contents.

For our part, although we welcome the measures the Government has included in the childhood obesity plan, we are extremely disappointed that several key areas for action that could have made the strategy more effective have not been included. The Government has stated that it will “look to further levers” if the plan does not achieve the necessary impact. We call on Ministers to set clear targets for reducing overall levels of childhood obesity as well as goals for reducing the unacceptable and widening levels of inequality.

We welcome the introduction of a tiered levy on the manufacturers of sugary drinks and the progress already being made in the reformulation of soft drinks as a result. We strongly recommend that manufacturers pass on the differential cost between products with high and low or no-sugar as a result of the levy in order to help maximise the ‘nudge’ to healthier choices. Consumers of sugar-free products should not be forced to subsidise higher-sugar drinks, which would in effect be the case if manufacturers do not pass on the price differential between these products arising from the levy. We recommend that the Government should develop and be prepared to implement measures to ensure that this price differential is clear in the price paid by consumers for high-sugar drinks. We also urge the Government to extend the levy to milk-based drinks which have extra sugar added.

We welcome the Government’s positive response to our recommendation that the proceeds of the soft drinks industry levy should be directed towards measures to improve children’s health including through increasing access to school sports and to breakfast clubs. We intend to follow up how the income from the levy is distributed, including the ways in which this can help to reduce the inequalities arising from childhood obesity.

Public Health England is leading a voluntary reformulation programme to challenge all sectors of the food and drinks industry to reduce overall sugar content across a range of the products which contribute to children’s sugar intakes. We urge the Government to set out the policy proposals which it is prepared to implement if the voluntary reformulation programme does not go as far or as fast as necessary to tackle childhood obesity.

Likewise we encourage Public Health England to go further in setting out their plans for reducing portion sizing. We recommend that the Government draw up measures to implement our earlier recommendation of a cap on portion sizes, linked to the calorie content of certain foods and drinks, to be introduced if swift progress on portion sizing is not achieved by voluntary means.

Given the amount of our food and drink that is purchased on discounts and promotions, we urge the Government to follow the evidence-based advice from their chief public health advisers and to regulate to further reduce the impact of deep discounting and price promotions on the sales of unhealthy food and drink. Industry representatives themselves told us this is necessary to prevent policies to reduce discounting from being undermined. Retailers who act responsibly on discounting and promotions should not be put at a competitive disadvantage to those who do not.