On the buses: why we need to see past the snack ban headlines

Today’s report from Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies wasn’t the only one on the issue of childhood obesity to be released today, but you’d think from the media headlines it was.

You’d also be forgiven for thinking that the only recommendation made by Dame Sally in Time to Solve Childhood Obesity was to ban eating on public transport.

In fact, Dame Sally made a total of 49 recommendations to ramp up the chances of the Government meeting its ambitious target to halve childhood obesity by 2030.

The report admits “there is no magic bullet… many actions, each with a small impact, will be necessary to reverse the rise in obesity”.

Yet in the media a bus snacking ban has eclipsed 48 other recommendations that are an attempt to stem a significant rise of a serious issue, some of them on a much larger scale.

A third of children in the final year of primary school are overweight or obese. Six children out of a class of thirty are obese and a further four are overweight. This is double the number of the class of 1989. Furthermore, the fear is that, without intervention, this figure will continue to rise.

Being overweight or obese as a child has, as the report notes, “profound impacts on health and life chances”.

The report cites changes in the environment over many years which have made it hard for children to be healthy. This obesogenic environment is what Dame Sally aims to tackle, emphasising children’s “right to live in a healthy environment”.

Yes, there may be questions around the practicalities and perhaps even the effectiveness about a ban on eating on public transport but we shouldn’t allow that to detract from the debate over childhood obesity, or the entirety of the report’s recommendations which together form a radical nationwide health campaign to change behaviours and norms about what and how we eat.

Dame Sally’s recommendations include a mix of bold and innovative ideas designed for long-term effectiveness. They fall under ten key principles that include fiscal policies and regulation to make healthy options more accessible, nudges towards healthier choices, marketing and incentive restrictions on unhealthy food and drinks and better education in school and within the NHS. They also aim to tackle the vested interests of industry, firmly putting children’s health ahead of big business profits.

The report’s recommendations work to normalise healthy eating, making it easier, more attractive and more accessible: all proven, powerful behaviour change techniques.

All techniques in fact that saw smoking rates in the UK slashed from an all-time high of 46% of adults in 1974 to 17% now, and interestingly many of which drew similar cries of nanny state-ism when introduced for tobacco.

The messages in Dame Sally’s report are reflected in that other one released today by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which issues similar stark warnings on childhood obesity and a similar mix of behavioural science recommendations to tackle it.

In the fight for standout news in the information age it’s easy to see why the media made a beeline for the most controversial headline. But this is a serious issue. Dame Sally’s report is innovative and could save future generations from an obesity epidemic.

Whatever your thoughts are on snacking on buses, childhood obesity is a serious issue that needs addressing and there are 48 other recommendations in this groundbreaking report that deserve attention.

Let’s get the debate back on track and discuss what needs to change to help our children. Join the social conversation.

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