Labour: piecemeal steps not enough to tackle obesity crisis

Published on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 15:25
Written by Daniel Mason

The "piecemeal steps" taken by the food and drinks industry are not enough to deal with Britain's obesity crisis and government must do more to tackle the problem, the shadow public health minister, Luciana Berger, said today.

Making the keynote speech at Govtoday's Public Health conference in London this morning, the Liverpool MP said reducing the sugar, salt and fat content in children's food, as well as encouraging physical exercise, would be priorities of a future Labour administration.

"Steps taken by some big brands to inform their customers, and make low fat and low sugar versions of their products, must be welcomed," she said. "But on their own piecemeal steps are not working. I want to work with the food and drink industry but we must go further.

"Labour shares the concerns of the World Health Organisation about the amount of sugar in people's diets. There are too many products on the shelves of our retailers that are presented as healthier options but in fact are high in sugar, fat or salt. This is why we are currently consulting with parents and experts about whether a cap is needed on the amount of sugar, fat and salt in foods specifically marketed to children."

Meanwhile moving from inactivity to activity "is the easiest lifestyle change to make" and helps people "feel better about themselves and more in control", she said, adding that they were then more likely to make better choices on smoking, drinking and eating.

"Physical activity is a positive catalyst for change, but why are a only quarter of adults here active compared to half in many Scandinavian and northern European countries? Over the last 50 years in the UK physical activity levels have declined by 20%. And even worse, they are projected to decline by a further 15% by 2030.

"Turning the tide on inactivity is one of the cheapest routes to good health and wellbeing, and the most cost effective way of making our public services sustainable."

Berger said Labour's wider public health policy would be informed by its 'one nation' mantra, with the goal of creating a society where "no one's health is damaged by their income, their work, their neighbourhood, or the social class into which they were born".

"We have a deeply divided society scarred by injustice and inequality. A society where social class is still a key determinant of how long you will live and how healthy you will be." Health inequalities are getting worse not better and there is "still so much left to do", she warned.

Drawing three lessons from the history of public health, she called for policy-making "boldness" on a par with the decision to ban smoking in public places; highlighted the importance of individual responsibility in determining health and wellbeing; and insisted every government department should consider the public health impact of its decisions.

"Public health must be a priority across government, from the design of new garden cities and suburbs to the reforms to welfare to get young people into work." But government cannot do everything, she said, and public health is about "partnerships between the government, the voluntary sector, business. It is not something done to people by experts - the nanny state is not a place in which I want to live."

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