Primary school children to be target of anti-obesity strategy
Children of primary school age are to be the focus of an anti-obesity strategy to be unveiled this autumn, David Cameron has disclosed.
The prime minister has already held talks in Downing Street with the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, the public health minister Jane Ellison and leading health economists to map out the central themes of the strategy.
The chief medical officer has already said it may be necessary to introduce a sugar tax, but Cameron has been wary of making this a central part of the strategy.
However he accepts the health crisis as sufficiently serious to draw parallels with the action taken by successive governments over tobacco. After much hesitation, the government did introduce plain packaging for cigarettes.
Cameron told reporters: “It is disturbing that 10% of children go to school obese, but 20% are coming out of school obese, so it is this primary school period where we really can do better.
“That is why I have tasked the department of health, the department of education, Jamie Oliver and others to look at this period and think about what can we do better.
“Of course, we want to reduce obesity rates across this country. If you look at the cost to the health service it’s absolutely vast, and there is no doubt that in the next phase of improving the health of the nation preventative health is going to be critical.
“I think the real focus should be on how we target that 10% to 20% problem, so it is a combination of diet, exercise and how we talk to parents about the problem.”
Officials fear that by the time children reach 12 their lifestyles may be set, so it is critical to intervene with parents and their offspring at a young age. Figures published in March by the Health & Social Care Information Centre show 9.5% of reception class children aged four to five were obese. This marks a slight rise from 9.3% in the previous year, but is lower than in 2006-7 when 9.9% were obese.
In year 6 the proportion of 10-11 year olds classified as obese rose substantially to 19.1%, an increase in turn from 17.5% in 2006-7.
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Figures show 10% of children go to school, and 20% leave school, obese. Photograph: Najlah Feanny/Corbis
But these figures mask the extent to which poorer children have seen a big rise in their obesity. Figures published by the chief medical officer show the rise in obesity in deprived areas is much higher in primary school, rising from 12% to 25%. In wealthier areas the figures indicate that 13.1% of 10 and 11-year-old pupils in year six were obese, while in the poorest places it was 24.7%.
Among reception pupils, Windsor and Maidenhead in Berkshire had the lowest proportion of children who were overweight, at 5.5%, followed by Kingston upon Thames at 6%.
One area for concern is the extent to which parents underestimate the weight of their children, partly because there is a collective failure to understand what represents being overweight in Britain.
Some research suggests that school itself is not necessarily the problem for overweight children, since children’s weight tends to rise most in summer holidays when they are subjected to the diet provided by their parents. This does not mean schools will be absolved from any responsibilities in the strategy, since they have a vital role in educating children on diet, providing school sport and ensuring their own school dinners do not contain an excessive amount of fat,
Issues that are likely to be tackled in the obesity strategy include: better information for parents on children’s diets; requiring processed products to state how many spoonfuls of added sugar they contain; and making it easier for consumers to make quick comparisons between competing brands.
One of the most controversial issues may prove to be the number of fast food stores in deprived areas and the numbers near schools.
A recent study by McKinsey & Company estimates that obesity and its related medical conditions costs the British economy £47bn a year.
Davies told the Commons health select committee in 2014: “I think the science is going such that we will find that sugar is addictive. I don’t think we’ve managed to get over to the public how calorie-packed fruit juices, smoothies and sodas are.
“We need to think about reformulation [changing what is in products], but we also need to have a re-education so that the public know that one’s fine but not lots of them. So we may need to move towards some form of sugar tax, but I hope we don’t have to.”
She also said clothing manufacturers had changed their dress sizes so the public would not realise they were getting fatter. A woman who fitted in to size 14 clothes now would actually have been a size 16 in the 1970s. “I worry that we have resized women’s dress sizes, so we have normalised being overweight,” she said.