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Government criticised for watering down plans to tackle obesity

Posted: 18/08/2016

The Government has published new plans to tackle obesity in the UK. These include a goal to cut sugar content in food and drink by 20% over the next four years - although this is a voluntary target for manufacturers - and a sugar tax on soft drinks, due to come into force in 2018.

The prevalence of obesity among adults increased sharply during the 1990s and early 2000s. According to the Health Survey for England, the proportion of the population categorised as obese (with a BMI above 30) increased from 13.2% to 24.3% of men and from 16.4% to 26.8% of women between 1993 and 2014.

Obesity is associated with a range of health problems including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnoea and cancer. The resulting NHS costs attributable to patients being overweight and obese are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050, with wider costs to society estimated to reach £49.9 billion per year.

The Government’s plans have been heavily criticised by many for failing to achieve the significant changes necessary to tackle the growing rate of obesity in the UK. Critics say the plans have been “watered down” from what was promised in an initial draft last year which included measures to prevent promotional sales of high-fat foods; to promote deals on healthy foods; and to impose new regulations on television and computer advertising. These have all been removed from the final plans despite Public Health England’s insistence that such steps would be the most effective way to prevent children becoming obese. It is understood that Theresa May overruled Jeremey Hunt, the Health Secretary, and insisted that the economy must take priority.

As well as the sugar tax and targets for manufacturers to remove sugar from foods, the plan relies on primary schools encouraging pupils to exercise for one hour per day. Naomi Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said that encouraging more exercise is “very good but it’s not going to defeat the obesity epidemic”. She said that the Government has to tackle the food industry, which, on the basis of the published plan, it is not prepared to do.

Arran Macleod, a solicitor in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, commented: “While there are promising aspects within the new plans to try to reduce levels of obesity in the UK, some promises have not been delivered. The Government could have gone further to help reduce the rising rate of obesity by imposing stricter and tighter regulations on the food industry. The current cost of treating obesity and related diseases to the NHS is currently estimated between £8 and £10 billion per year and is forecast to increase dramatically in the future as the demand for bariatric and related weight loss surgery increases. These procedures have life-threatening risks for patients and are expensive for the health service. A strong push now to reduce the rising rate of obesity should, therefore, be a priority.”

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