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Health Inequalities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:14 pm on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury 6:14 pm, 4th March 2020

When considering how best to improve the nation’s health, including where inequalities exist, I have a natural tendency to want to go back to the very beginning and consider whether the experience of children can lead us to the answers. To that end, I want to raise the—literally—growing problem of childhood obesity. If we look at the overall statistics, we see that a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese, and that 79% of children who are obese in their early teens will remain obese as adults. That puts them at risk of conditions including diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, joint pain and cancer, but it also damages their life chances and can lead to psychological issues that can bear down on and impact their quality of life.

The causes are, as ever, multiple and complex: social, environmental, biological, personal and economic. Looking at the financial position of people, it is true to say that it is cheaper to fill a hungry child with doughnuts than with apples. Of course it is possible to eat healthily for less, but even here we see inequality. Research from University College London and Loughborough University in 2018 found that although childhood obesity had increased in recent decades, its rise had not affected children equally. The report concluded that

“the powerful influence of the obesogenic environment”— that is, growing up in an environment that encourages or at least facilitates unhealthy eating—

“has disproportionately affected socioeconomically disadvantaged children”.

For example, the obesity figures for four to five-year-olds are at their highest among children from the most deprived areas, where 13.3% are obese, compared with 5.9% in more affluent areas. Although this is a long-running disparity, it is no less concerning, as these figures show. The seeds of a lifelong battle with obesity are sown at an early age, with one in five children already obese or overweight before they have even started school. Understanding the drivers and the most effective interventions is clearly going to be crucial to achieving the change that is needed.

That is why the measures that the Government have taken through the national childhood obesity plan, the Green Paper “Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s” and the NHS long-term plan are important parts of the solution. We know that the soft drinks industry levy has been effective in reducing sugar content, with about 37.5 billion kilocalories removed from the soft drinks industry every year. We have the school food plan, and health education is now compulsory in our schools. We also have the primary PE and sport premium and the Healthy Start scheme, as well as the healthy child programme that we have heard about. All these measures are helping to tackle childhood obesity, but we know that there is a lot more to do if we are to meet our target of halving childhood obesity by 2030.