Anti-obesity law being considered as part of new public health drive

(Title Image: thedailymeal.com)

Yesterday, the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), launched the latest Welsh Government anti-obesity drive entitled Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales, which is out for consultation and expected to be finalised by October 2019.

“The greatest public health challenge of our generation”

The Minister painted a stark picture. 27% of four-to-five-year-olds and 60% of adults in Wales are either overweight or obese. As we keep being told, being overweight can lead to long-term health conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.

The Minister is actively considering using the law:

“Our proposals here include bringing forward legislation for the first time to help tackle obesity – this includes on price promotions, calorie labelling on foods eaten out of the home, and banning the sale of energy drinks to children. I also want us to work proactively with industry to drive change through reformulation and to limit the advertising of unhealthy foods.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

While the Minister accepted some of these issues are non-devolved (advertising regulation in particular), the Welsh Government were willing to work towards a UK-wide advertising watershed for high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods and drinks.

While schools couldn’t carry all of the burden, the new strategy sees them playing an important role. The strategy will also see healthy eating and exercise habits embedded from the very start, with measures to help pregnant women manage their own and their child’s weight through to the first three years or so of their child’s life.

Being overweight “has become normal”

Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) praised the Minister for taking on board many Welsh obesity alliance recommendations, particularly noting the alliance’s statement that being overweight has become normalised.

While measures to kick start healthy habits in children were welcome, what was being done to reach adults?

“I know many GPs these days are using social prescribing in terms of prescribing exercise or participation in local gyms. But I don’t think, frankly, that it’s promoted as widely as it could be. We know that social prescribing can have a huge impact on people’s mental health as well as helping them with their weight.”
– Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar AM

Plaid Cymru’s health spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), wanted the Welsh Government to set clear targets:

“We will need a national target about how we’re going to reduce the percentages the Minister’s rightly highlighted of our fellow citizens who are either obese or overweight, but we’ll also need specific targets for specific organisations to act on, because as the Minister has rightly said himself, we don’t need any more warm words on these issues and we do know that what gets measured gets done.”
– Helen Mary Jones AM

The Minister said targets and milestones would be set, but these would be “smart” and based mainly on how behaviours are changed rather than obesity reduction alone.

Poor diet “a defining feature of Wales”

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) placed the blame squarely at poor diet and aimed criticism at school catering companies who bring in food “from goodness knows where” with minimal checks.

“My predecessor as the Member for Cardiff Central, Jenny Randerson, fought long and hard to introduce the Healthy Eating in Schools (Wales) Measure 2009 and she had this vision of instituting freshly made, fresh food in schools. It simply hasn’t happened.”
– Jenny Rathbone AM

UKIP’s Gareth Bennett raised the importance of widening participation in physical activity beyond those who were already good at it, while Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) said children didn’t have enough opportunities or confidence to use the outdoors for exercise and education.

Caroline Jones AM (Ind, South Wales West) welcomed falls in sugary drinks consumption amongst young people, but lack of physical activity was a bigger problem. Plus, she worried how small outlets like independent cafes would cope with calorie labelling requirements compared to larger corporate retailers; the Minister reassured her that nothing was set in stone yet.

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