Yesterday, a long-awaited plan to curb childhood obesity was released by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, one which had promised to offer a “robust response” to the growing health crisis in that country.
Earlier drafts of the plan had included several measures deemed by experts to be the most likely to help curb childhood obesity, specifically bans on: child-directed junk food advertising; price-cutting promotions of junk food in supermarkets; the sale of junk food in check-out aisles; and the promotion of junk food to children in restaurants.
But in the end, allegedly as a direct result of intense food industry lobbying, all of those provisions were cut. Instead, the central focus of the plan is a voluntary scheme under which food manufacturers promise to reduce sugar by 20 percent in products popular with children such as cereals and yogurt.
“I’m in shock. The long-awaited Childhood Obesity Strategy from Theresa May’s new Government is far from robust, and I don’t know why was it shared during recess. It contains a few nice ideas, but so much is missing. It was set to be one of the most important health initiatives of our time, but look at the words used – ‘should, might, we encourage’ – too much of it is voluntary, suggestive, where are the mandatory points? Where are the actions on the irresponsible advertising targeted at our children, and the restrictions on junk food promotions? The sugary drinks tax seems to be the only clear part of this strategy, and with funds going directly to schools that’s great, but in isolation it’s not enough. This strategy was Britain’s opportunity to lead the way and to implement real, meaningful environmental change, to start removing the crippling financial burden from our NHS and reversing the tide of diet-related disease. With this disappointing, and frankly, underwhelming strategy the health of our future generations remains at stake. I sincerely hope the Government’s promise to ‘take further action where it is needed’ is true…”
(More criticism of the plan, which has variously been called “hugely disappointing,” “insulting,”and “a truly shocking abdication of the Government’s duties to secure the health and future of the next generation,” here, here and here.)
All of this is reminiscent of several failed attempts here in the United States to similarly ban junk food advertising to children, even including a purely voluntary federal scheme that was decisively crushed by Big Food back in 2012. Instead, we’re left with an industry-led effort – the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative – which, according to experts, has done virtually nothing to shift “the landscape of food marketing to children away from an overwhelming emphasis on obesogenic products.” (My most recent critique of industry advertising self-regulation: “The Real Reason Why Your Kids Are Still Seeing Junk Food Ads.“)
Had the British child-directed advertising ban been adopted and eventually shown to help reduce childhood obesity, it might have increased public support for the same measures here at home. Instead, all we’ve learned is that the processed food industry has precisely the same lobbying clout overseas as it does in our own legislative process.
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