Governments take the ‘drivers’ seat’ on child obesity
A carefully worded EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity, initiated one year ago under the Irish Presidency, was adopted at the Greek Presidential Conference in Athens on 26th February.1 The Plan reflects the political complexity of the 27-member EU and aims to ‘demonstrate a shared commitment to addressing childhood obesity.’ The priority actions in ‘a possible toolbox of measures for consideration’ respect Member States’ ‘roles and freedom of action in counteracting childhood obesity.’2
The toolbox of 8 ‘doable’ actions
● Support a healthy start in life (breastfeeding support, monitoring of marketing etc.)
● Promote healthier environments especially in schools and preschools
● Make the healthy option the easier option (no food and drink sponsorship in schools)
● Restrict marketing and advertising to children (defined as 0-18)
● Inform and empower families
● Encourage physical activity
● Monitor and evaluate
● Increase research.
In January and February the food and advertising industries and NGO members of the EU Commission’s Platform for Action on Diet and Physical Activity were invited to comment and submit commitments for possible inclusion in the Annex of the Action Plan. The industries tried to weaken the proposed actions, arguing for greater consultation on the basis that they knew better than most about the ‘realities.’ Their suggestions for actions would most likely have done more harm than good. (See pg 6, Nestlé in schools.)
Thankfully EU Member States insisted that as ‘executors of the process’ they must be in the ‘drivers’ seat.’ The Commission also stated that ‘stakeholder consultations’ can only go ‘so far.’ The final plan includes hardly any of the industry commitments. Instead Platform members have been invited to develop new commitments, ‘linked to their core businesses’ - i.e. to focus on changing products and reducing harmful marketing.
Obesity in Europe
Obesity has more than tripled in many European countries since the 1980s, with 7% of health budgets now spent on associated diseases. Evidence is mounting about the importance of very early life feeding and behaviour. The chances of children sliding into or out of obesity are diminished as they grow older.3
WHO’s data on the ‘Prevalence of exclusive Breastfeeding’ in the EU mixes ‘under or at 6 months of age.’ It shows wide variation in the region: Denmark at the top with nearly 60%; the UK 7th from the bottom with less than 2%!
A few weak spots: The Plan calls for timely introduction of complementary foods but uses both 4 and 6 months as indicators. Also it calls for monitoring of the International Code ‘in line with Directive 2006/141’ which is much weaker. Since this Directive is currently being discussed by Member States, hopefully the Action Plan will be used to rectify its many shortcomings.
● Good news from Mexico: In October Mexico passed a 10% tax on soda drinks and an 8% tax on junk food (see Update 45).
2 The Netherlands (supported by Sweden) is currently not supporting the Plan because ‘most of the actions lacking cross-border elements and having a dominant national character, thus falling under national responsibility.’
3 N Engl J Med 2014;370:403-11. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1309753