70 Health Organisations sign open letter calling for the Prime Minister not to abandon children's health in this time of need
Leaders of health charities, medical organisations and health professionals (including the British Medical Association, British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK) have signed and sent an open letter to the Prime Minister expressing their profound concern that measures to promote children's health may be abandoned without facing the scrutiny of Parliament.
This follows the Government's recent review of its obesity strategy for England, which is understood to include plans to scrap the sugar levy on soft drinks and other measures to cut preventable illness such as the ban on TV advertising of junk food before 9pm – with the aim of 'easing the UK's cost-of-living crisis'. In fact, these policies directly link to the Government’s own priorities which are to increase productivity and growth, reduce pressure on the NHS and help with the cost of living.
The letter from the Obesity Health Alliance, signed by 70 organisations, is urging the new Prime Minister to reconsider any plans to weaken the public health measures put into place, which were supported by three previous Conservative government leaderships. This is especially pertinent given that in an average class of 30 year-six children, 12 will be living with overweight or obesity.1
Without doubt, cutting preventable illness is crucial if the Government is going to tackle the NHS backlog, realise its targets to halve childhood obesity by 2030 and deliver on levelling up, as poor diet is a key driver of regional health inequalities.
This follows a survey (16h September 2022), carried out by YouGov for Cancer Research UK of more than 2,000 adults, which showed 60% of people support the junk food restrictions being implemented in January 2023 as originally planned.
Furthermore, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) has already demonstrated it's an extremely successful policy that has reduced the amount of sugar in soft drinks by 30%, whilst increasing sales in the market (up 5% in 2021). In addition to removing 48,000 kilos of sugar from the nation's diet, the SDIL has raised £300 million to fund over 2,000 school breakfast clubs and school holiday programmes, feeding a million children each year. It has also funded sports and PE equipment for primary schools. To stop collecting the SDIL revenues would lead to an increase in costs for families on lower incomes who vitally need these programmes.
Almost two-thirds of adult Britons are living with overweight or obesity. Obesity costs the NHS an estimated £6.1bn a year to treat because it is an increasingly common cause of cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart conditions, painful joints and other health problems. Government analysis projected that NHS costs attributable to overweight and obesity could reach £9.7bn by 2050.
Dr David Strain, British Medical Association Board of Science Chair, says: "It's deeply disappointing to see the new government threaten to throw away the progress we have made tackling obesity without any evidence it would do anything to help alleviate the impact of the cost of living crisis. This sort of short-term thinking threatens not only the government’s target to halve childhood obesity by 2030 but the NHS itself, as obesity-related preventable illnesses mount up in the absence of any discernible strategy to prevent them."
"These are policies designed to make it easier for people to eat more healthily. Scrapping them would be a disaster for the most deprived families in the UK, families which are most likely to be suffering from obesity both as adults and children. Health inequalities are already increasing at a worrying pace and this is just threatening to turbocharge them for no gain."
"Something we should have learned from the pandemic is the importance of good population health, including maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. Instead, what we are seeing proposed betrays a complete lack of strategic thinking and a bewildering disregard for evidence based public policy."
Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive at British Heart Foundation says: "If these rumoured reversals to vital obesity policies turn out to be true, then this represents a dangerous step backwards in addressing a major public health crisis."
"Health and wealth are two sides of the same coin. Dropping such measures won't help hard up families deal with the cost of living crisis, but unless action is taken, ill health caused by obesity will continue to put strain on our economy and pile greater pressure on the NHS in future – harming productivity and costing everyone more in the long run."
"There is no silver bullet to reducing our stubbornly high obesity rates – instead it takes a range of measures such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and a junk food advertising watershed all working at once to make a major difference. With so many pressing health priorities filling up the Government's in tray, this is surely not the time to set a torch to policies which promise to save lives and money in the coming years."
Chris Askew OBE, Chief Executive at Diabetes UK, says: "Cases of type 2 diabetes are rising rapidly in the UK, with the numbers among children particularly concerning, and living with overweight or obesity is a key risk factor for this life-changing condition. "Improving the health of our nation is clearly more vital than ever, and it would be totally reckless for the Government to backtrack on evidence-based policies designed to help people live healthier lives. The new Prime Minister should be looking to build on these progressive measures, not scrap them."
Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, and Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt says: "It would be absolutely scandalous if our new Prime Minister does not fully examine the extensive evidence supporting these policies, especially the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, which has not only reduced household sugar consumption but also increased sales and generated revenue to help the more vulnerable."
"Unhealthy diets high in saturated fat, salt and sugar are the biggest cause of death and disability globally. The Government must not kowtow to the food industry, and put the UK's health first."
Katharine Jenner, Director of the Obesity Health Alliance says: "If these agreed policies fail to be implemented, we can wave goodbye to the savings of £37bn for the NHS and £202bn for wider society through increased productivity that would be generated if we met the 2030 target of halving childhood obesity.1"
"We strongly urge the Prime Minister to reconsider any plans that would undoubtedly jeopardise these crucial public health measures."
Ben Reynolds, Deputy Chief Executive of Sustain says: "It should be easy for everyone to eat healthily, especially children. It isn't. The measures in the Government's obesity strategies, which have been backed by successive Prime Ministers, were designed not just to improve our health but to save the country millions in lost revenue and avoidable healthcare costs. Can we really afford to scrap them?"
"The obesity measures were designed to make it easier for businesses to do the right thing, ensuring they wouldn't lose out to cynical competitors content to profit from making customers ill. U-turning on them now will undermine the hard work of progressive businesses, and waste millions of pounds they have invested in making their products and shopping environments healthier. We hope ministers will reconsider."