Children between the ages of four and ten are consuming twice as much sugar as their recommended daily allowance, despite intake from sugar-sweetened soft drink falling, says Public Health England. Sugary drink consumption has dropped by 23% in the same age bracket, since the 2008/10 survey. We all know that sugar is bad for teeth and bad for general health and wellbeing and consumer groups were hoping for drastic measures from Theresa May’s obesity strategy.
However, the Department of Health’s Childhood Obesity Strategy, published last month, has been strongly criticised by both the food industry and health groups, as the reduction of sugars, fats and salts in food and drink is now ‘voluntary’. Retailers say this means businesses will not now be competing on a level playing field.
The British Retail Consortium said it was disappointed that the strategy didn’t impose mandatory cuts to sugar, salts and fats.
Action on Sugar, the Children’s Food Campaign and consumer group Which, have all criticised the strategy for not bringing in mandatory restrictions on advertising and promotion of all ‘junk food’ to children (which presumably means a return to sweets at the checkout in the supermarket. Nooo!).
Admittedly I haven’t read the whole document myself, but by accounts there are whole sections of earlier drafts now absent, those which covered regulations on advertising and promotion. Indeed, the final paragraph states that it will be “respecting consumer choice, economic realities and, ultimately, our need to eat”. It’s weak and says nothing, apart from “carry on as you were, we’re doing nothing”. Not much of a strategy is it? The ban on tobacco advertising back in 2003 is attributed to a significant reduction in smoking. Consumer groups were hoping for something similar to tackle obesity.
Having a stronger strategy could have meant stronger communications on health and wellbeing. But not only will that not happen, what will happen is a plethora of marketing messages on the benefits of junk food and drinks. People like to work to rules and if the rules are lax the messages will be there, front and centre.
Sponsorship of sporting events has always been questionable too. The Olympic Games has been sponsored by Coca Cola and McDonalds, and football and beer have traditionally gone together. Had the strategy been more stringent, could it have led to a major shift in the types of companies sponsoring these events too? Probably – again, see tobacco.
While anything we can do to address the obesity crisis is a good thing, there is more to ill health than consuming too much sugar or fat. And while obesity is perceived as the disease of the poor and/or the lazy, the issue is more complex than that. Education, housing, and poverty are all factors that contribute to the obesity crisis.
It’s easy to make snap judgements about a person or a whole group of society, but this strategy could have helped all parents. So please don’t judge me as I’m trying to drag my sweet-loving child away from the Kinder Eggs on the aisle-end in the supermarket and fruitlessly steering him towards the free fruit!
We don’t want a nanny state telling us what we can and can’t do (or consume in this case), but what we would like to see is responsibility in advertising, promotion and communications to put a stop to damaging marketing messages. Other industries are regulated, why not the food and drinks industry? Media agencies push the envelope, and so they should, but without the right regulation the balance between pounds in the bank and pounds on hips is weighted the wrong way.