Is government’s childhood obesity plan just storing up problems for the workplace?

The government’s latest plan for tackling childhood obesity have been roundly criticised by health experts as pulling its punches and not going far enough. So will employers be clearing up the mess in years to come?

The government’s childhood obesity plan published in August has been roundly attacked by health experts, campaigners, MPs and even the boss of one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains for being watered down and lacking in ambition.

The plan has set out a blueprint for introducing a “levy” on soft drinks and asking the food and drink industry to cut 5% of the sugar in products popular with children over the next year, with an ultimate target of a 20% cut, although this will only be voluntary.

It has also argued, among a range of recommendations, that primary schools should deliver at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day, that schools should get a voluntary “healthy schools” rating and that there should be more help for parents and carers to ensure children get the same amount of exercise at home as they should do at school.

Nevertheless, the plans have been branded as “weak” and “watered down” by experts and campaigners.

For example, MP Dr Sarah Woolaston, chair of the Parliamentary Health Select Committee, told the BBC that “whole sections” of the original draft had been dropped, including much tougher measures on advertising junk food to children and promotions such as two-for-one deals.

Even Mike Coupe, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, argued there should be a tougher regime, including compulsory rather than voluntary targets for sugar and mandatory traffic light labelling.

The government’s response also came in for criticism from celebrity chef and school meals campaigner Jamie Oliver, who has described it as “disappointing”.

But are they right? Certainly, the government does not think so.

Jane Ellison, financial secretary to the Treasury, called the plan the “most ambitious programme of reformulation that any developed country has taken”.

And the Department of Health argues that this plan could just be a first step, suggesting: “We will measure progress carefully and are not ruling out further action if results are not seen.”

For employers, and despite the intervention from Sainsbury’s, this is clearly at the moment very much still a political issue, despite evidence that UK children are becoming obese at a younger age.

But it is also a vitally important one for the future health – economic as well as individual – of the workplace.

Employers, it is becoming increasingly clear, could in the decades to come be faced with something of a “perfect storm” when it comes to employee health.

At one end of the spectrum, employers will be needing to manage an increasingly greying and “post-retirement-but-still-working” workforce. On the other, there will be the prospect of a younger generation coming through that will be arriving with its own serious, perhaps even chronic, health issues.

This isn’t to suggest this is something employers should be providing the answer to, or even that there is an easy answer. There, very clearly, isn’t, and this is a challenge that is going to require answers from society, our politicians, our healthcare system and individuals themselves, as well as from employers.

But, as the Obesity Health Alliance has also argued, the danger is that, by not introducing tougher measures, it is “the next generation who will pay the price”. And, you could well argue, potentially the next generation’s employers too.



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