Alex Neill: With obesity plan doing no good, Scotland must act

Where the UK Government has failed to deliver on the current health crisis, Scottish ministers could lead the way, says Alex Neill

Food manufacturers should be reducing sugar in foods by more than the 20 per cent which the UK Governments new obesity plan requires. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Food manufacturers should be reducing sugar in foods by more than the 20 per cent which the UK Governments new obesity plan requires. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The UK Government’s long-awaited childhood obesity plan was finally published last month and it was poorly received, being roundly criticised by leading health and consumer experts.

In what was described as Theresa May’s first test since becoming Prime Minister, hopes for a comprehensive strategy taking a tough stance on junk food marketing to children were dashed.

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The plan proposes that we can tackle this absolutely critical public health issue by a limited range of largely voluntary measures, with the exception of a sugar levy.

These include a voluntary food industry target to reduce sugar in children’s food and drink by 20per cent over the next four years and a call on companies to produce healthier foods.

The consensus is that this weak and unambitious proposal will not be enough to tackle the obesity crisis. Our view at Which? is that much stronger and more decisive Government action is needed to lower fat, sugar and salt content in foods and to ensure responsible promotions.

Obesity Action Scotland accused the UK Government of “bottling it” and Ross Finnie, Chairman of Food Standards Scotland, said the strategy “simply does not go far enough”.

Scotland’s own health minister, Aileen Campbell, described it as a “missed opportunity” to do more, such as to protect children from junk food advertising.

With the Scottish Government set to refresh its own strategy to tackle obesity, there is a significant opportunity to address the failures of the UK Government’s approach and commit to taking more courageous action here in Scotland.

Why should Scotland go further? Firstly, the obesity problem is greater in Scotland – 65 per cent of adults aged over 16 are overweight, 28 per cent of whom are obese. This is estimated to cost the Scottish economy in the region of £1 billion a year, and can lead to serious, longterm health problems for those who struggle with their weight.

In order to help Scottish people to make healthier choices, we need to see far stronger measures introduced.

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We know that there is a real demand among the Scottish public to eat healthily, with more than half (53 per cent) of people saying supermarkets should ensure that their promotions make it easier for people to choose healthier food. The Scottish Government must work with retailers to deliver the change that shoppers want to see, and make sure they are held to account if they fail to act.

When Which? looked at the number of promotions across the major UK supermarkets between April and June this year, of the 77,165 promotions where nutritional data was available for the product, we found that over half (53 per cent) of promotions were on less healthy foods compared to healthier products (47 per cent).

The new strategy should also ensure that all food manufacturers commit to using traffic light nutrition labelling on the front of their packaging and set targets for sugar and saturated fat reductions. It should also encourage caterers to provide calorie labelling for people when eating out, so people can make a truly informed decision about what they’re eating.

And there’s also a clear concern about the irresponsible marketing practices of the food industry, particularly towards children. Advertising rules are currently determined by the UK Government, but we think there is still a lot more that the Scottish Government can do to encourage more responsible company practices.

There are no quick fixes or easy solutions for solving the obesity crisis, but now is the time for the Scottish Government to be bold.

Ministers must step up and deliver a proper strategy that will give people the best possible opportunity to maintain a healthy diet in order to tackle the obesity crisis in Scotland.

• Alex Neill is director of Policy and Campaigns at Which?,