Money raised from the government’s so-called “sugar tax”, which forms part of its new childhood obesity strategy, should be invested in public health nursing roles, according to campaigners.
The government’s long-waited action plan on childhood obesity was published earlier this week highlighting that nearly a third of children aged two to 15 years old are overweight or obese.
”The money raised from the sugar tax must be used to shore up recent cuts in public health spending”
The centre-point of the plan is the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – nicknamed the “sugar tax” when it was announced at the 2016 Budget – that is set to come into force in 2018.
According to the government, the levy will directly target the producers and importers of sugary soft drinks to encourage them to remove added sugar, promote diet drinks, and reduce portion sizes.
In addition, the plan said the food and drinks industry in general would be “challenged” to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one.
The voluntary target will be supported and supervised by Public Health England, which will also advise government on setting sugar targets per 100g of product and calorie caps for specific single serving products.
The government said it was also committed to reviewing labelling for packaged food and drink, suggesting that in future it might include clearer visuals, such as teaspoons of sugar.
“Health visiting, school nursing and public health… services must be given the sustained investment they so desperately need”
As well as moves designed to encourage healthy eating and exercise in schools, the Children’s Food Trust has been commissioned to create healthy menu ideas for “early years settings”.
Early next year, the government said it would launch a campaign to raise awareness of voluntary diet guidelines – that include the new menus – among early years practitioners and parents.
In addition, the plan noted the important role of health professionals to support families develop a healthy lifestyle, highlighting a range of new resources developed to help them do so.
“Health professionals should feel confident discussing nutrition and weight issues with children, their families and adults,” it stated.
It cited a “suite of resources” aimed at supporting the healthcare workforce, including training on influencing behaviour change and initiating difficult conversations, as well as targeted training for health visitors and school nurses “given their unique positioning” enabling them to identify weight issues in children early on.
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“We will review where content on nutrition, physical activity, healthy weight messaging and weaning advice in materials for visits by midwives and health visitors can be strengthened,” said the plan.
“We will also explore how evidence-based healthy weight messaging can be introduced at other contact points, such as childhood immunisation programmes,” it added.
Meanwhile, the plan flagged that Health Education England had updated materials on the E-learning for Health platform to help staff to feel “confident about raising weight issues, nutrition and physical activity as an issue”.
Meanwhile, PHE will be developing advice to schools for the 2017-18 academic year, which will set out how schools can work with the school nurses, health centres, and council healthy weight teams to help children develop a healthier lifestyle.
However, many stakeholder organisations have criticised the plan for being “weak” and watered down” due to a lack of compulsory targets for reducing sugar levels in food, mandatory “traffic light” labelling, and measures to curb junk food advertising to children.
Some have also pointed out that the plan includes no specific funding earmarked for health professionals, especially public health nursing roles, seen as key by them to tackling obesity.
‘Sugar tax’ gains should be spent on public health nurses
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “Now, at last, we have a plan for reducing obesity early in life.”
But she said the money raised from the sugar tax “must be used to shore up recent cuts in public health spending”.
Ms Feuchtwang also claimed the plan “undervalues” the public health role of local authorities and “could do more to fully utilise” health visitors and school nurses, who she said “can play an important part in tackling obesity”.
Fiona Smith, professional lead for children and young people’s nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, described the plan as “more notable for what it does not contain than for what it does”.
She said: “Nurses working in health visiting, school nursing and public health roles can make a huge difference to the health and lifestyles of families, and these services must be given the sustained investment they so desperately need.”
She added: “It is deeply concerning that there is no mention of plans to tackle the marketing which is aimed at children, which can normalise and incentivise unhealthy habits.
“There needs to be a much wider programme of work to ensure that the NHS and the nation can cope so future generations don’t have cause to condemn the current one for failing to tackle the problem when the danger was known from the start,” she said.
“It is very disappointing that marketing and advertising curbs will not be put in place”
Nicola Close, chief executive of the Association of Directors of Public Health, added: “This plan for action is a good start but we need stronger government action to back up all the good local work being undertaken by directors of public health and their teams.
“The industry levy is important as are the other reformulation measures, but it is very disappointing that marketing and advertising curbs will not be put in place,” she said.
Sharon White, professional officer for School and Public Health Nurses Association and an independent public health nurse consultant, said: “Whilst [the plan] does, in part, recognise the unique contribution of school and public health nursing, it falls far short of much of the action needed to address this increasingly worrying endemic.”