Marketing, regulation and taxation: fighting childhood obesity

KeepHealthCare.ORG – Marketing, regulation and taxation: fighting childhood obesity

Recent headlines on the severe levels of obesity in primary school age children are indeed shocking, with nearly twice as many children in year six are classed as severely obese as those in reception. The health risks including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer are well documented. It can also shorten a person’s life by 10 years – equivalent to lifelong smoking.

These headlines have prompted me to reflect on what has been achieved since Change4Life was launched in 2009. The first of its type, this social marketing campaign set out to change the behaviours and circumstances that lead to weight gain.

Reading the headlines, one might be forgiven for thinking that little progress has been made. However, drawing such a hasty conclusion fails to recognise several critical factors:

Obesity is a complex problem with many drivers, including our behaviour, environment, genetics and culture.Tackling childhood obesity is a long-term goal; the 2016 childhood obesity plan set out 10-year targets.At its root obesity is caused by an energy imbalance: taking in more energy through food than we use through activity. Long-term, sustainable behaviour change will only be achieved through the active engagement of industry, schools, communities, families and individuals.

Against this backdrop, the role of Change4Life is to help families adopt the behaviours that prevent unhealthy weight gain; for example, to reduce children’s intake of sugar and encourage at least 60 minutes of activity per day. However, there is no handy textbook solution on how to deliver such behaviour change campaigns.

The team at Public Health England (PHE), together with their agencies, have been pioneering new developments in behaviour change communications. The Change4Life campaign has successfully raised awareness of the links between unhealthy behaviours and long-term health harms and outcomes; the sheer number of news stories on the topic is testament to this.

It has capitalised on the power of technology to support healthier choices. The January 2016 Change4Life Sugar Smart campaign inspired more than 2 million downloads of the Sugar Smart mobile app and a survey of 1001 mums who had used the app found 96% of those with 5-11 year old children agreed the app has prompted them to make a healthy change by cutting their families sugar intake. And they have worked in partnership with Disney to chunk 60 minutes of physical activity into exciting 10-minute bursts of activity, currently encouraging children to ‘Train like a Jedi’.

Of course, marketing communications is only one lever. It supports a comprehensive package of policies including several school-based interventions as well as reformulation.

The introduction of the National Child Measurement programme in 2013 means that we have for the first time both a national picture and the ability to plan and provide better services locally. The School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme gets a free piece of fruit or vegetable into children’s hands each school day and the Change4Life schools programme provides a wealth of curriculum linked teaching resources help children eat better and move more.

All sectors of the food and drinks industry have been challenged to reduce sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by reducing sugar levels in brands, reducing portion size or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives. The report on progress published this month shows some reductions (albeit not perhaps at the pace we would all like to see but progress nonetheless). Change4Life campaigns such as Be Food Smart help to shine a light on these healthier choices.

And of course, there is fiscal policy. With nine teaspoons of sugar in a 330ml can of cola, instantly taking children above their recommended maximum for the day, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (or the Sugar Tax as it has been nicknamed) launched in April aims to incentivise manufacturers to remove added sugar from soft drinks. The revenue is then being invested in giving school-aged children to encourage physical activity and balanced diets starting with an investment in healthy breakfast clubs.

So, notwithstanding the downward pressure on national and local marketing budgets over the last few years, some progress is being made in ensuring people know what they need to do to live healthy lives and are motivated to do so. This means helping to drive cultural acceptance of healthy behaviours, supporting other government levers and offering tools to help people to start on their behaviour change journey. And perhaps most importantly, the sustained commitment to Change4Life over the last 10 years has galvanised and amplified the efforts of those working to tackle obesity across the commercial, voluntary and public sectors; Public Health England cannot meet these challenges alone.

There is a long way to go and it will demand even greater levels of innovation and collaboration. But taking into account the evidence on smoking, where 10 years’ plus of concerted effort with marketing working alongside other levers such as taxation and regulation has reduced smoking prevalence, the goal of an affordable and sustainable solution to tackling the rising tide of childhood obesity seams achievable.

Jane Asscher is chief executive and founding partner at 23red


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