More powers needed for councils to tackle childhood obesity

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Part of the kitchen we need to keep our children way from!!

This is the speech I have made today as the spokesperson at the LGA for Public Health. Child Obesity is a real problem for Liverpool as it is for all urban areas. I hope to do something about the issue if I am elected Mayor on May 5th.

Child obesity has been described as one of the most serious public health challenges for the 21st century by the World Health Organization, while NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has called it ‘the new smoking’. Almost one in five children are overweight or obese by the time they start primary school, and more than a third are by the time they leave, putting them at greater risk of obesity-related conditions like diabetes and cancer, heart disease and asthma. You all know this. It is a problem affecting every community across this country. No town, city or village is immune.

The burden placed on the NHS and in adult social care today by our obesity crisis is huge. Direct costs caused by obesity are estimated to be £5 billion per year and forecast to more than double by 2050 if we carry on as we are.

The Government should use the delayed child obesity strategy to come forward with a radical, ambitious and challenging proposals to tackle the child obesity crisis facing our communities. Councils and the NHS cannot be left to pick up the pieces.

For too long “the cards have been loaded” in favour of the food and drink industry.

You cannot absolve your responsibility if you decide to sell energy drinks marketed at teenagers with 20 teaspoons of sugar in it or sell a box of cereal covered with cartoon characters containing 18 teaspoons of sugar.

As a country need a “seismic shift” in our collective thinking, if we are to tackle the growing problem of obesity. Parents need to be more vocal. The change in our national eating habits and physical activity over the last few decades has created an epidemic of overweight and obesity.

The danger of becoming complacent about overweight and obesity is that it becomes normalised: manufacturers adapt their clothing style and fit to the body shape of the population – manifested by the popularity of elasticated waists, baggy tops and tracksuit-style bottoms. Epidemiological studies have shown how the prevalence of obesity can be likened to the spread of an infectious disease – with the patterns seen in the United States of America many years ago having transferred across the Atlantic with other cultural and lifestyle changes and now part of our national picture.

We know that the long-term effects of obesity include an increasing risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus, heart disease, some types of cancer, arthritis, joint problems and reduced mobility. But we do not yet know the extent to which moving into adulthood reduces the patterns we are seeing in primary school. Nevertheless, obesity provides a future resource challenge for us because of the longer-term implications of these long-term medical conditions for health and social care.

In attempting to reverse the increase in childhood obesity, we have to recognise that its cause is multifactorial – and cultural factors play a large part. If we consider how, for today’s children, traditional family mealtimes are less common, with the consumption of fast foods, and snacking and grazing having taken their place – and the development of a “sweet tooth” – encouraged by the consumption of high fructose sugars, such as corn syrup.

With increased calorie consumption no longer mitigated by calorie-burning physical activity, due to the rise in sedentary activities such as computer/tablet/smartphone usage and gaming, the likelihood of excess weight increases. Solutions to the epidemic of childhood obesity therefore are more likely to succeed if they tackle the cultural elements of lifestyle behaviours rather than just the excess weight issue.

If we think about how to create the best start in life for our children, then the process begins during pregnancy, then on to breastfeeding and weaning, and developing and sustaining healthy family eating habits and promoting physical activity as the child grows.

Whatever the setting, opportunities should be taken to empower parent/carers to resist the unremitting promotion by retailers of high fat, high sugar foodstuffs to children. Food like this is cheap – which is why we see the worse-off areas having the highest levels of excess weight in children. That is why I welcome yesterday’s announcement of a tax on sugary drinks. But we must recognise that this is only an very small part of a solution to very complex issues.

A recent study found that 75 per cent of food and drink marketing seen by young people was for junk food, with many buying more than one food or drink item in response.

Today the LGA is calling for powers to ban junk food advertising near schools should be given to councils in a bid to beat the child obesity crisis. We believe the move would reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food and drinks high in salt, fat and sugar, said to be a key driver behind child obesity.

If the Government granted councils these powers, they would have the freedom, working with schools, children and parents to control the advertising of junk food and sugary drinks if they felt it was an issue that needed tackling in their area. Giving powers to town halls would make it much easier to control food and drink advertising near schools, if it was an option they wished to pursue.

Under the current system, councils have to apply to the Secretary of State, followed by a period of consultation before a decision is reached. You can’t give local authorities responsibility for tackling child obesity by tying one arm behind our backs! We are not saying every council should be using these powers, but it gives local authorities the option of banning junk food advertising near schools and leisure centres, if they feel it can make a difference and improve children’s health in their town or city.

It is not right when we are trying to educate children around the importance of maintaining a healthy diet, that at the same time they are subjected to a bombardment of junk food advertising.

Finally, councils recognise that we need to exercise our responsibility in developing and implementing policies which promote healthy weight. In the US, the mayor of Oklahoma literally showed the way. Overweight himself, he committed to shedding the excess flab and asked his fellow citizens to come on that journey with him. By opening himself up, making himself vulnerable, he helped the people of Oklahoma to connect with him. They shared his ambitions for themselves, and for the health of their city. And it worked: together they lost a million pounds.

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About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. . Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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2 Responses to More powers needed for councils to tackle childhood obesity

  1. X says:

    Surely the only people who can tackle childhood obesity are parents?

    It is only parents who can not buy their children fizzy drinks; who can bring them up to eat properly; who can make them exercise rather than allowing them to gradually accrete in front of a screen.

    It has nothing to do with councils or their powers; it is entirely the parents’ responsibility and fault.

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