MPs Voice Childhood Obesity Fear

The government has been too slow to react to rising levels of childhood obesity, an MPs’ report has warned. Despite a target to halt the rise of obesity among under-11s by 2010, the Commons public accounts committee said little concrete action had been taken.

There is no clear leadership among departments who have been “confused” and “dithering”, said the MPs. But the government insisted progress was being made in encouraging healthy food choices and physical activity.

Levels of obesity in children aged two to 10 years rose from 9.9% to 13.4% between 1995 and 2004, according to the Health Survey for England. A joint target was set in 2004 between the Departments of Health, Education and Skills and Culture, Media and Sport to halt the year-on-year increases by 2010.

But the Public Accounts Committee said there was a lack of co-ordination across the departments and called for the appointment of a high-profile leader to galvanise them into action. There was also criticism of the failure to engage parents in tackling the causes of obesity.

Although a national programme to measure and weigh all children in primary schools in England had been launched, it had been unclear if parents would be told if their child was overweight and at risk of serious health problems, said the committee.

The government’s attempts to work with the food industry to influence marketing of unhealthy food to children have also been unsuccessful, the report said. A public information campaign planned by the government should start “as soon as possible” if the target is to be met in the next three and a half years, they said.

Edward Leigh, MP, chairman of the committee said: “The extent to which children in this country are obese is alarming. More alarming still is evidence that unless we act, the proportion of children who are obese will increase sharply. It is lamentable that, long after the target was set, there is still so much dithering and confusion and still so little co-ordination.”

The committee also found that the government couldn’t tell if its strategies were working because of the two-year delay in reporting of national figures.

Public Health Minister Caroline Flint said there were no easy answers or quick fix solutions to childhood obesity. “The evidence on which this report is based was gathered in 2005 and early 2006. In the interim we have achieved an enormous amount.

She listed labelling on food packets and Ofcom’s recommendations on limiting junk food adverts to children as achievements. “We will monitor the impact of the changes and are committed to taking further action if necessary.”

Dr Ian Campbell, medical director of Weight Concern, said there was never any chance of the government hitting the target. “There is no question that the government has not done enough and what they have done has not been done quickly enough but some progress has been made. What’s missing is a national umbrella organisation that will bring to task the government departments because there’s too many people working in isolation.”

Dr David Haslam, clinical director of the National Obesity Forum, said the government had set themselves a very difficult task as all the evidence has shown it’s an almost impossible problem to solve. But he added that there were things that should have been done quickly, such as incentivising GPs to manage childhood obesity in their contract. “When it come to implementation they have failed utterly.”