Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An article on childhood obesity in Europe

Taken from an article I wrote for The Parliament Magazine
Classified as an epidemic in Europe by the WHO, with around 20% of European children overweight, of which one third are obese, it is time for policy-makers to turn rhetoric into action.

With high prevalence rates in children from poor socio-economic backgrounds, there is clearly a strong correlation between childhood obesity and disadvantaged families. Of course education is key; for health workers, parents and the children themselves. Whilst as MEPs we can encourage Member States to dedicate sufficient resources to education programmes, and to cooperate together to share best practice and exchange ideas, we have no formal powers in this area. Similarly, public health largely remains a national competence, although increasingly, legislation we deal with in the Parliament can and does play an important role.

For example, in order to empower parents to make the right choices for their children, simple and easy-to-understand nutritional information is important. It is difficult to make the right choices if no information is available, or is presented in an unclear or inaccessible format, obscuring comparisons. This is why the ongoing struggle over the new Food Information to Consumers regulation is so important to many of us in the European Parliament who understand this. I was delighted that in our first reading vote last June, my proposals to label key nutrients on the front of pack in an easily comparable format were backed by a majority of MEPs. I was less pleased that my proposal to use the traffic light system to denote low, medium or high levels of salt, sugar and fats was rejected, following a fierce and often misleading campaign from vested interests. This system, simple yet effective, would have enabled at-a-glance comparisons between different foods, helping parents to identify the healthier option for their children.

A similar lobby from vested interests was also at play during the revision of the Television without Frontiers Directive, some years ago, when a proposed amendment to restrict advertising of junk food before 9pm was ferociously opposed. I find it unacceptable that foods with a poor nutritional profile can continue to be advertised to children, be it directly or indirectly and I look forward to the imminent implementation of the Nutrition and Health Claims regulation, adopted by the European Parliament in 2006, which will ensure nutrition claims must be scientifically backed up, and will put in place nutrient profiles, ending the current practice whereby a food with a particularly poor profile in terms of high levels of fats, sugar and salt is allowed to bear a positive health claim which focuses on just one positive aspect, while ignoring the many negatives.

I was also extremely interested to read about developments in Finland, and their planned confectionary tax to help discourage consumption of unhealthy junk food. While I am not necessarily convinced that this is the best way forward, it does highlight an important issue; it is often the food with the poorest nutritional make-up which is cheapest, meaning that parents wishing to provide their children with a balanced, healthy diet find it more expensive to do so. This is perverse and if we are serious about tackling the child obesity epidemic, we must look at ways of reversing this.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet to help us tackle the scourge of child obesity and whilst the measures I have outlined here may be small steps, nevertheless they do represent progress and I shall continue to campaign on such issues in the future.


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