Even the most hopeful and healthful Americans may be surprised to learn the United States, overall, shows more improvement in curbing childhood obesity than Great Britain. While the U.S. has found a cozy home under the microscope, our neighbors across the pond have their own childhood obesity epidemic brewing. And it’s a problem that has many officials clamoring for radical reform, including taxes, bans, and heavy regulation.
The rates have just about evened out: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Public Health England, the rates of childhood obesity in the United States and Britain hover around 18 percent. However, both countries are heading in opposite directions it may seem. Given the growing population of obese children, British lawmakers are seeking approval for 20 percent taxes on soft drinks and zoning codes that prohibit fast-food restaurants from setting up shop near schools, playgrounds, and other areas frequented by kids.
Poor diet and sedentary lifestyles remain the suspected causes of the obesity epidemic, according to a report issued by the British Heart Foundation.
“These figures are a warning that many of our children are in grave danger of developing coronary heart disease,” the foundation’s chief executive, Simon Gillespie, said in an appearance on the ITV network’s morning show Daybreak.
Spearheading the effort is the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC), Britain’s leading doctors’ group, which released a detailed report in February prescribing potential solutions to the epidemic. The report called the UK “the fat man of Europe.”
Outlined in the report — which the AMRC refers to as a “campaign” — are 10 key steps that “must be taken to make real inroads into tackling the obesity crisis in the UK.”
These 10 include education programs for healthcare professionals, weight management services, nutritional standards for hospitals, increasing support for new parents, nutritional standards in schools, decreased fast-food outlets near schools, junk food advertising, sugary drinks tax, food labeling, and an environment conducive to activity.
Unsurprisingly, the food and beverage industries have taken issue with limits on food advertising and taxes on sugary drinks.
“Obesity is a serious and complex problem, but a tax on soft drinks, which contribute just 2 per cent of the total calories in the average diet, will not help address it,” said Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, in a statement. “61 per cent of soft drinks now contain no added sugar and we have seen soft drinks companies lead the way in committing to further, voluntary action as part of the government’s Responsibility Deal Calorie Reduction Pledge.”
The government predicts that childhood obesity rates will reach 25 percent by 2050.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) doesn’t see the justification for further limiting junk food advertisements on television, as the organization believes the restrictions are already tight enough. A 2007 ruling now prevents celebrities, licensed characters, or health claims from being tied to food and drink ads specifically marketed to children under the age of 12. However, the FDF refers to data from Ofcom — the national communications authority in the UK — which reports little change in obesity directly from limiting advertisements.
“Advertising restrictions alone will not solve the complex issue of obesity,” an FDF statement reports. “For instance: Ofcom research shows that advertising has only a ‘modest direct effect’ on children’s food choice of approximately 2%.”
The dangers of childhood obesity have experts scrambling for solutions, however. Complications from obesity can range from diabetes to heart disease to a host of other problems. Treating them early on is advantageous, no matter the source. And many of the foods we consume are purely habit at this point, Gillespie added.
“The sorts of things that people are accepting as normal now," he told Daybreak, “will actually cause significant problems for our children and teenagers.”