Obesity: a public health crisis?

Significant measures to improve public health in the last Parliament included the introduction of standardised packaging for tobacco products and the soft drinks industry levy. However, the consensus from health organisations is that more could be done to prevent illness and promote long-term health.

Obesity continues to be a significant public health challenge, and one that will keep both health professionals and policy makers busy in the new Parliament.

The figures

While figures on obesity have not increased significantly in the last decade, they have remained static, maintaining the UK’s reputation as ‘the fat man of Europe.’ Currently 27% of adults and 20% of children (aged 10-11) in England are obese. Prevalence is predicted to increase, alongside the numerous associated physical and mental health conditions, and reduced life expectancy.

The cost of obesity is highly uncertain but the latest estimate of the annual cost to the NHS in England is £5.1 billion, projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050. This is only the cost to the health service; the total cost to the economy will be greater.

An inequality issue

Obesity in the UK serves as a good example of the social gradient in health: children living in the most deprived areas are substantially more likely to be obese than their more well-off peers. These children are also more likely to have poorer diets, be exposed to more urban air pollution, and will tend to have a shorter life expectancy.

Obesity levels are higher among children in deprived areas of England

Ten years ago, a Government Office for Science Foresight report on obesity said that the causes of being overweight are complex, and reported that although “personal responsibility plays a crucial part in weight gain, human biology is being overwhelmed by the effects of today’s ‘obesogenic’ environment, with its abundance of energy dense food, motorised transport and sedentary lifestyles.” It highlighted that tackling obesity was a long-term, large-scale commitment and that significant population level action was required.

The 2014 NHS Five Year Forward View echoed this, calling for “hard-hitting national action on obesity” and other health risks.

Childhood obesity plan

The previous Government’s highly anticipated childhood obesity plan was published in August 2016. Stakeholders and commentators welcomed the introduction of the soft drinks industry levy and a reformulation programme on high sugar foods, but were disappointed that some measures recommended by Public Health England had not been included. These measures (present in a leaked draft of the plan) included controls on price promotions and stricter rules on advertising and marketing high fat, salt and sugar foods. The May Government described the plan as the beginning of a conversation and said further action could be taken once progress had been assessed.

Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action 2016

The Government’s Childhood obesity plan introduces numerous measures, which include:

  • A Public Health England (PHE) reformulation programme to reduce the sugar in foods aimed at children;
  • Recommitment to the healthy start voucher scheme enabling low-income families to buy fruit and vegetables;
  • Action to increase physical activity in schools;
  • The soft drinks industry levy to apply to manufacturers and importers of added sugar soft drinks;
  • Reassessment of school foods standards;
  • A review of food labelling;
  • Promotion of the use of technology to aid healthy choices; and
  • A review of health professional training and education on obesity and nutrition.

Investment in public health

Recent changes to the organisation and funding of public health in general have provoked some concern.

The Commons Health Select Committee, in its 2016 report on Public Health post-2013, said that there was a clear mismatch between funding on public health and the significance attached to it in the NHS Five Year Forward View. It described cuts as a false economy and reported that they could lead to negative consequences for future generations, and threaten the future sustainability of the NHS. The Committee also noted plans to change the way public health is funded, and remove the current ring-fence on this funding. It recommended that the Government outline how this could be managed to ensure it didn’t lead to further health inequality.

Public health professionals and medical charities have said that the next Government should focus on and invest in preventing ill health, which will ease the pressures on the NHS. Calls have been made for health issues to be integrated into all areas of local government policy, ensuring that health is a material consideration in planning and licensing.

Members of the 2017 Parliament will witness the initial impacts of the childhood obesity plan, but may also be faced with questions on what further action should be taken to improve health and reduce health inequality in the UK.

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament. More Key Issues posts will be published on this blog throughout June, subscribe via the homepage to get instant alerts.

Read more on obesity in our statistics briefing


“Obesity is the new smoking, and it represents a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising health care costs.”  Simon Stevens (NHS England Chief Executive)

“The future health of millions of children, the sustainability of the NHS, and the economic prosperity
of Britain all now depend on a radical upgrade in prevention and public health.”  NHS Five Year Forward View (2014)