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The Secret Plan to Save Fat Britain: Channel 4 Dispatches

Obesity is costing the struggling NHS billions every year and threatening the next generation. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has described tackling the childhood obesity crisis as a national emergency.

In the wake of the heavily criticised government childhood obesity strategy, Channel 4 Dispatches reveals the details of a much more ambitious plan that never saw the light of day.

The document – passed to Dispatches - demonstrates how Theresa May’s government dismantled David Cameron’s obesity strategy in 36 days.

David Cameron’s Draft Obesity Strategy:

Dispatches analysis shows how entire sections of the original plan no longer exist, including the following key proposals:

  • The cornerstone of the draft plan was to cut childhood obesity by half within the next ten years, which it said would mean 800,000 fewer obese children by 2026. This pledge was abandoned, the published plan simply promises to ‘significantly reduce’ childhood obesity within the next ten years
  • The plan to force restaurants, cafés and takeaways to put calorie information on menus was also scrapped.
  • Supermarkets – The draft plan set out to tackle the promotion of unhealthy food by challenging retailers to take action by “removing unhealthy food and drink… in prominent locations such as check-outs and end of aisles.” This was cut from the version published by Theresa May.
  • Proposals to limit the way supermarkets promote unhealthy food with buy-one-get-one-free offers, price cuts or selling cheap multipacks have been removed. The draft plan initially stated, “40% of the food and drink we buy to eat at home is bought on price promotion…double that of other European countries… We challenge individual retailers to take action by… ending the promotion of unhealthy foods.”
  • Advertising of junk food – The draft strategy aimed to: “put in place… measures to further reduce families’ exposure to adverts for unhealthy food… This will mean that fewer of the shows watched by many of our children - including for example some popular Saturday night entertainment – will contain adverts for unhealthy food.” This entire section has been removed.
  • Exercise was a key topic in the published strategy. It said: “Every primary school child should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day”. But the following qualifying paragraph - Dispatches discovered in the draft plan - was removed: ‘We must recognise that increasing the amount of exercise children undertake will not in itself solve childhood obesity. The number of calories we can burn through physical activity is dwarfed by the amount we can easily consume through food’

Elements from the draft document that remained or were included in the childhood obesity strategy published in August 2016 include:

  • The introduction of a soft drinks industry levy across the UK, a move welcomed by health campaigners.
  • The call upon manufacturers to reduce sugars in products by a fifth in the next four years. It won’t be compulsory.

Jamie Oliver

Dispatches showed the draft proposal to Jamie Oliver, a key campaigner for the need to improve the food health of the nation, in particular the next generation.

Jamie, “Obesity is killing huge amounts of people, well before their time. This is a war, if you are worried about the thing that hurts British people the most, it ain’t ISIS, right?”

Antony, “The Theresa May plan came out in August, what did you think?

Jamie, “I don’t know where to start. This should go to the Trades Description Act because that says an ‘action plan’ and there’s hardly any action in there. When you look at how the plan came out at midnight, next to the A Level results, while the whole of government’s on holiday, it absolutely screams out we don’t care.”

“I'd say it's never too late to say I'm sorry. And, just sort of you know, start again,

James Cracknell:

James Cracknell is a big advocate for a healthy lifestyle and isn’t afraid to speak out against Theresa May’s plans,

“The terminology – it’s about hope, would, should. A lot of its voluntary codes and we know that doesn’t work.”

This strategy to tackle childhood obesity… one part of the key plan is to promote exercise in children. It’s not the silver bullet that is going to cure everything, and no exercise specialist is going to say exercise is the thing that cures all weight problems. Exercise is important to build in but it’s also important to build in eating the right things and also understanding why those are the right things to eat. At the moment it’s presented as the plan, primarily because it’s actually quite cheap to do exercise… I’m disappointed because the effect of it down the line is going to impact every member of society because it’s going to bankrupt the NHS.

The lobbyists are all on one side of the equation. They’ll be the food producers and the food retailers, supermarkets. Whereas the other side, the healthy side, it’s not monetised in the same way. So I think the pressure all comes from one way and you can only have your finger in the dam for so long.

Supermarket promotions on unhealthy food and drink:

Dispatches analysed promotions in England’s four major supermarkets in the six weeks after Theresa May’s government published the obesity strategy. Chocolate, sweets, crisps and sugary fizzy drinks were much more likely to be promoted than fresh fruit and vegetables.

Overall, the five leading supermarkets price-promoted 47% of these four unhealthy goods and only 17% of fruit and vegetables.

Each supermarket showed a different pattern in how it promoted the categories we analysed, but all of them, without exception, promoted significantly more unhealthy categories than the two healthy ones.

Expert commentary on the suitability of the new strategy:

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Medicine and one of Britain’s most influential campaigners on obesity, states:

“I was gutted, I mean it was a pathetic plan, it didn’t include any restrictions on marketing or promotion or advertising to children, which is scandalous.

We’ve missed a huge opportunity. We would have been the first country in the world to have a comprehensive plan for preventing obesity. We could have done it, and very sadly and very disappointingly Theresa May – for reasons best known to herself – decided not to go ahead with this…”

A Department of Health spokesperson said:

“Our plan to tackle child obesity is ground-breaking: no other developed country has done anything as ambitious. The Government has intentionally taken a careful and measured approach which will reduce obesity. We are taking bold action though the Soft Drinks Industry Levy to cut the amount of sugar consumed by young people. Alongside this, our restrictions on advertising and promotion are among the toughest in the world. These steps will make a real difference to help reverse a problem that has been decades in the making, but we have not ruled out further action if the right results are not seen.”

The Secret Plan to Save Fat Britain: Channel 4 Dispatches, Monday 31st October, Channel 4, 8pm

Prod/Dir: Roger Corke

Reporter: Antony Barnett

Exec Prods: Ruth Pitt, Chris Shaw

Prod Co: ITN Productions

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