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MPs deplore poor progress in combating childhood obesity

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39105.510532.DB (Published 25 January 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:173
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1London

    The government's attempts to tackle childhood obesity have been beset by “dithering,” “confusion,” and “little coordination” by three key departments, the MP charged with investigating progress on the matter has said. Unless concerted action is taken promptly the proportion of children who are obese will rise sharply, he warns.

    Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the public accounts committee, was commenting on the committee's latest report. The committee took evidence on how the Departments of Health; Education and Skills; and Culture, Media, and Sport planned to halt the rise in obesity in children and what they are doing to harness the support of parents and influence organisations.

    In July 2004 a public service agreement target was established between the departments to halt by 2010 the year on year increase in obesity in children younger than 11 years old. The 2004 Health Survey for England found the proportion of children aged between 2 and 10 years who were obese had risen from 9.9% in 1995 to 13.4% in 2004.

    “The extent to which children in this country are obese is alarming,” said Mr Leigh. “Halting the growth of childhood obesity means changing how children and their families behave and that requires many parts of government acting together. This is tricky territory. It is therefore all the more urgent that the departments involved work together to set a clear direction. It is lamentable that, long after the target was set, there is still so much dithering and confusion and still so little coordination.”

    Two and half years since the target was set the report criticises the departments on all fronts. They have been “slow to react” and have failed to publish key sections of their delivery plan. They had also created a complex delivery chain for meeting their objectives which involves 26 different bodies or groups of bodies. Attempts to work with the food industry have failed to change the way that most unhealthy foods are marketed, including television advertising.

    And a delay of up to two years between doing the health survey and publishing the results means that the departments do not currently know what progress is being made to halt the rise in child obesity.

    The report recommends that the departments “increase the pace of their response,” consider appointing an obesity champion to “galvanise activity,” and introduce measures to audit the performances of different parties.

    Also criticised is the failure of the departments to engage parents in tackling the challenge facing them and the decision not to inform parents if their child is found to be obese because of fears that children diagnosed as obese will be stigmatised and bullied. Since summer 2006, all children in reception and year 6 are weighed and measured, although the report says it is not clear how bodies, such as primary trusts or schools, will use the data.

    According to the report the “Department [of Health for England] is now considering how and when parents could be informed. The department should move quickly to disclose the information in ways that will help parents to address the dietary needs of their children.”

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