New Report Calls on United Kingdom to Tackle Obesity More Forcefully; Advocates Urge Action Now

If current trends continue, warns a new British government report released in October 2007, 60% of men, 50% of women and 25 of children in the UK will be obese by 2050.  Changes in food production and marketing, fewer opportunities for physical activity, and current eating habits have made obesity the default option. “If we just behave normally we will become obese,” said Sir David King, the UK government’s chief science adviser.

The report, “Tackling Obesities: Future Choices” was prepared by Foresight, a government research group, to examine how the UK can deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years.  The project has assembled evidence and expertise from academic disciplines as diverse as epidemiology, food science, genetics, psychology and sociology, and from professionals and interested organizations within and beyond Government.  While the report acknowledges that reducing the prevalence of obesity will require long-term action from numerous stakeholders at multiple levels, it concludes that “the lead must come from Government.”

The report attracted extensive media coverage and the UK health secretary Alan Johnson warned that the public health threat posed by obesity in the UK is a “potential crisis on the scale of climate change.”  However, in recognition of the report’s pessimistic outlook for obesity and the epidemic’s  deep roots in British society, UK public health minister Dawn Primarolo announced that the UK was delaying its goal of halting the rise in childhood obesity from 2010 to 2020.

Advocates charge report lacks blueprint

In response to the report, the Children’s Food Campaign, an alliance of more than 300 organizations, urged stronger and more immediate action.  It suggested three specific steps the government could take to reduce obesity.

First, the Campaign called on the government to ban all TV junk food advertising before 9 pm.  Second, the UK should act to reduce children’s exposure to online and cell phone junk food advertising. Third, it should enact a simpler “traffic light” food labeling system that provides consumers with clear guidance.

Finally, British schools should make food skills a required part of the curriculum so that every child leaves school knowing how to make simple nutritious meals.

According to Dr. Mike Rayner, Director of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University and Chair of the Children’s Food Campaign, “the government has to make a philosophical leap.  It should no longer see its role as gently guiding the food industry towards more responsible behavior, but instead as the protector of children’s interests, ready to take action to improve children’s diet and well being.”

Sue Davies, chief policy adviser to the UK consumer organization Which? also urged the government to go “further and faster” by enacting tougher rules against promotion of unhealthy food to children within three months.  “Obesity is a complex problem, she said, “but the solutions currently on the table are not up to the task.”  Which? recently initiated a campaign to force the British food industry to market food more responsibly and produced a campaign toolkit to help parents groups and community organizations to pressure government and industry to act more forcefully.

New Public Debate on Food Policy and Role of Food Industry

In many ways, the British debate on food policy mirrors the discussions in the United States.  However, the new Foresight report and the forceful and widely covered criticism by public health and nutrition researchers and advocates has put the question about the roles of government and industry in reversing the obesity epidemic squarely on the public agenda.  Whether the US 2008 Presidential election as well as the local, regional and national mobilizations to improve children’s diet, promote food justice and reduce obesity can provide a similar opportunity here in the United States remains to be seen.