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Making obesity everybody’s business: A whole systems approach to obesity

A briefing for elected members

Obesity is considered to be one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. It is having an impact on people’s lives now, across the generations, in terms of our quality of life, our risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and its association with common mental health disorders. Doing nothing is not an option. Without action, the health of individuals will continue to suffer, health inequalities associated with obesity will remain and the economic and social costs will increase to unsustainable levels.

Obesity is a complex problem with a large number of different but often interlinked causes. No single measure is likely to be effective on its own in tackling obesity. The Government is committed to tackling obesity and is putting a range of levers in place to address the problem, including a soft drinks industry levy and reducing the amount of sugar and calories in foods. However, to have a significant impact on obesity levels, it is clear that everybody needs to get involved.

Local authorities are particularly well placed as the functions they are responsible for serve all generations in society and can directly influence people’s health. Despite the will being there to tackle obesity, the current environment of significant financial constraints dictates that, for many local authorities, jobs, local prosperity and statutory services take priority.

However, as obesity can indirectly impact on the employability and productivity of local populations, in addition to the demand for social care, reducing obesity levels can have a positive effect on these priorities. It is now over four years since councils took on responsibility for public health and health and wellbeing boards took on their statutory role. Councils have welcomed their new role and are now moving into a phase of transformational change. Success will depend on getting health policies embedded in all aspects of what a council and its partners do, or put simply the extent to which councils become genuine public health councils.

This briefing focuses on the Whole Systems Obesity programme, which will provide local authorities with a different approach to tackling obesity. This involves the whole local system of stakeholders, recognising that it is a problem that goes far beyond public health. It makes tackling obesity everybody’s business. The programme is exploring the evidence and local practice to develop guidance and tools to help councils set up a whole systems approach to obesity in their local area.

A key lesson that is emerging from the programme is that taking a whole systems approach requires the right mind set across the council. Practitioners at a local level need support to think, adapt and work in a way that enables them to work in a whole systems way. The programme is developing ways to support this.