Obesity is quickly becoming a key battleground for public health authorities across the UK.
While smoking rates have long been in decline, the health fallout caused by high-fat, high-sugar diets is now so severe that in some places a fifth of children are overweight by the time they go to primary school. As with smoking, kicking any habit once it has been established is that much harder.
Local authorities have a responsibility to act as corporate parents to some of the most vulnerable in our society. As public health, planning, education and social care professionals look at ways in which our services can be integrated and optimised we are developing our understanding of the effects of ‘obesogenic’ environments – the negative influences that exist in our communities that encourage unhealthy eating choices.
Local authorities are each tackling this in many different ways. At home, we have asked every takeaway to sign up to our Eat Well Wirral campaign – aimed at helping local takeaways make small changes to the way they prepare, cook, serve and sell their food to encourage customers to eat more healthily. Plymouth City Council has recently refused permission for a new takeaway in its town centre due to the high number already present, and the proposed business’s proximity to local schools.
We don’t want to demonise takeaways. The reality is that, for many people, takeaway food is a necessary convenience, and almost an inevitable part of modern life. And it is certainly not the only issue feeding into the obesity epidemic.
I support the calls from across the public health world for action on taxing sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs). This has been done by other countries, such as France, Hungary, Norway and Denmark.
How many people avoid sugar in their tea and coffee, but don’t realise that there is the equivalent of around 9-11 teaspoons of sugar in a single can of fizzy drink? We should think about our local policies about SSBs in schools and leisure centres too.
All of these measures will involve a combination of positive, co-operative work and statutory enforcement. Unfortunately, we as a country have reached the stage where we can no longer afford to pay no mind to what, and how we eat.
Fiona Johnstone, director of public health, Wirral MBC