Behind the Headlines: the Childhood Obesity Strategy

Behind the Headlines: the Childhood Obesity Strategy

Marie Lorimer

The wait is over for the Government’s childhood obesity strategy. Marie Lorimer discusses how a policy once described as ‘draconian’ interventionism, turned over a new leaf. 


What’s happened?

After months of delay, the Government has published the long awaited childhood obesity strategy. The strategy’s aim is to try and significantly reduce childhood obesity within the next ten years, outlining approaches such as the soft drinks industry levy, a 20% sugar reduction in certain products, clearer food labelling and incentives to promote healthier lifestyles.

First expected in December 2015, the obesity strategy has been continually delayed and its eventual release, coinciding with Team GB’s Olympic successes, shows a shift towards daily exercise rather than restrictions on industry. The report was described as a ‘victory’ for the food industry by the Financial Times, Times and other national publications, as the Government dropped proposed stronger measures such as curbs on television advertisements, as well as plans to ban junk food from supermarket checkouts.


Why’s it important?

Osborne’s sugar tax announcement during the last budget displayed a deviation from the traditional libertarian values expressed by some members of the Conservative party, justifying the intervention by ‘putting the next generation first’.

May has taken her own judgement on the appropriate balance between government and voluntary action, a decision which has put her in the firing line from health think tanks, medical leaders, and politicians. This is the first time May’s regime has deviated so significantly from her predecessor’s policy, and the first time she has faced an all-out media backlash.


What’s the reaction been?

Coverage of the strategy has been critical across the board, with responses from the public health lobby, anti-obesity campaigners taking up most of the column inches (BBC). Indeed even Civil Servants spoke to The Times commenting the strategy had been “castrated”. As expected, the Guardian has been particularly vocal in this space, producing a variety of feature and editorial pieces condemning the Government’s approach.

Despite recess in full swing, the strategy has also received cross-party criticism from politicians. Dr. Sarah Wollaston, Tory MP, GP and chair of the commons health select committee appeared on BBC Radio 5 yesterday morning stating that ‘whole sections’ of the strategy had been dropped between the draft stage and publication. Shadow Health Secretary Diane Abbott penned her thoughts in an article for the Huffington Post, advocating public health lobby recommendations to tackle obesity to avoid sleepwalking into a “public health crisis”.

The most high-profile critic of the report is celebrity TV Chef and anti-sugar campaigner, Jamie Oliver. His high media profile and vehement criticism of the report has been driving negative coverage autonomously, as seen in both the Telegraph and Sky.


Best headline?

Any headline which manages to incorporate the phrase ‘massive damp squib’ in relation to a controversial policy subject deserves a slow clap, take it away the Guardian:

Former ministers attack ‘massive damp squib’ of childhood obesity plan – the Guardian


What’s next?

The Government tactfully released the report during recess, meaning it has circumvented an immediate parliamentary debate. However, May will have to defend the obesity plan when Parliament resumes and rebut the wide range of criticism in the Commons. Even if Labour does manage to coordinate an effective strategy to hold her to account, she faces critics from her own benches. We haven’t heard the last of this yet.