Public Health England head to face questioning ahead of child obesity enquiry

Fizzy Drinks

House of Commons Health Select Committee Chair, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, has written an open letter to Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, to request that ‘crucial’ evidence from a PHE review be made available to the Committee for consideration prior to the launch of its child obesity strategy.

Amongst other health areas, PHE’s Evidence into Action review is expected to outline how it intends to tackle the problem of childhood obesity, alongside fiscal considerations regarding a proposed sugar tax. If introduced, such a move could see high-sugar carbonated drinks subject to a tax at the rate of 20p per litre and junk food advertising subject to a television watershed.

Similar so-called health related tax schemes already exist in numerous countries including Australia, some US states, Norway and more recently, France, Mexico, Finland and Hungary – with variable success.

Experts estimate that introducing a sugar tax in the UK could raise revenue of between £300 million and £1 billion a year and trigger a drop in consumption of around 15% - with the potential of preventing 180,000 children from becoming obese and suffering the often lifelong health problems associated with obesity.

In the letter, Dr Wollaston says: "The evidence you have assembled is crucial to the committee's ability to consider what the policy priorities should be for addressing childhood obesity.

"Delayed publication is as harmful as non-publication if this means that the public and health professionals wishing to influence the content of the obesity strategy do not have access to the data before the ink is dry on the obesity strategy."

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has also been accused of suppressing information. He announced that publication of the child obesity strategy – which was expected in July - was to be delayed until later this year. Despite the support of numerous doctors and medical experts, ministers are thought to be in favour of other approaches to dealing with the issue, such as improved education. Critics argue that, once armed with the right information about sugar, fat and salt, people should be free to make their own food and drink choices.

Jamie Oliver campaign

The campaign to introduce the controversial tax was spearheaded by TV chef and children’s health campaigner Jamie Oliver on the back of his television programme, Sugar Rush, which investigates the nation’s addiction to sugar and its resultant health problems. Earlier this year, Jamie Oliver launched an e-petition calling for the government to introduce the tax, which at time of writing, had attracted support from over 147,000 people.

Fast Food

In the aforementioned letter, Dr Wollaston also invited PHE chief Selbie to offer explanation for the delay to the HoC Committee on October 19, the same day that Jamie Oliver is due to present the e-petition alongside the findings of his own investigation and his five point manifesto.

She adds: “I do not believe that the petitioners, or the wider public, will understand how the committee can complete its consideration of this issue if the review of the evidence, paid for with public money and for the benefit of the nation’s children, is not made available.”

PHE has already urged drinks manufacturers to sign up to a voluntary initiative to reduce sugar in their products, and while some have taken steps to implement change, campaign group Action on Sugar - with the backing of 23 experts - says that a mandatory change in policy is needed.

According to a Health and Social Care Information Centre’s 2015 report, obesity in children in England increased dramatically between 1995 and 2005, when obesity peaked at 19% among both boys and girls. However, the same report indicates that figures have remained relatively static for the past five years, at around 16% and 15% for boys and girls respectively, with children from poorer families twice as likely to be obese.

The total cost of obesity and associated health problems to the NHS is estimated to be in the region of £5 billion per annum.


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