Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Healthy living strategy launched

Obese people (BBC)
Obesity levels could see a massive increase

A 372m strategy aimed at cutting levels of obesity in England has been launched by the government.

The strategy includes 75m for an "aggressive" campaign to promote healthy living to parents.

Several "healthy towns" will be created at a cost of 30m with comprehensive cycle routes and pedestrian areas.

Ministers said measures could potentially include offering obese people vouchers for gyms as an incentive to exercise.

Tackling obesity is the most significant public and personal health challenge facing our society
Alan Johnson
Health Secretary

Announcing the strategy, Health Secretary Alan Johnson said food labelling was also key to helping people eat well, and said regulation may be needed if industry could not agree on one system.

There are currently two, with the government backing the "traffic lights" as opposed to labelling showing the percentages of guideline daily amounts (GDAs) a product contains.

In the UK, nearly a quarter of adults and nearly a fifth of children are obese after sharp increases in the last decade.

Experts have warned the number could soar unless action is taken. It is predicted that 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children could be obese by 2050 if action is not taken.

Children top priority

Obesity is linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart and liver disease and diabetes.

Identify at-risk families and offer early support and advice
Make cooking lessons compulsory for children
Increase children's activity levels
75m healthy living marketing campaign aimed at parents
Work with industry to agree a universal food labelling system and to reduce portion sizes of fatty or salty foods
A review of junk food ad rules
Limit fast-food outlets near schools and parks
Incentives to encourage weight-loss
Personalised support via the NHS Choices website and more weight management services

Ministers said support and information - rather than "hectoring and lecturing" - were key to cutting rates.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "We must do nothing less than transform the environment in which we all live.

"We must increase the opportunities we all have to make healthy choices around the exercise we take and the food we eat."

Ministers said tackling child obesity was the main aim. They pledged to reduce levels to those of the year 2000 by 2020.

The strategy focuses on measures to improve diet and lifestyle for pregnant women and children, promoting existing ideas such as encouraging new mothers to breastfeed.

It also includes the plans launched earlier this week for all children to receive cookery lessons in schools, and calls on all schools to have healthy lunchbox policies.

Planning powers

Councils will be urged to use their planning powers to prevent fast-food outlets setting up near schools.

But the strategy also sets out ways to improve adults' lifestyles, raising the possibility of financial incentives being paid to people to encourage them to live more healthily.

Existing measures to boost the number of people walking or cycling, rather than using the car are also included.

Small changes could be made to our environment which force people to take more exercise
Sarah, Doncaster

Other measures outlined in the document include an early review of the junk food ad regulations recently introduced by broadcasting regulators Ofcom to protect children, and a plan to talk to the entertainment industry about tools to allow parents to manage how long children spend watching TV or playing computer games.

Employers will also be asked to play more of a role in helping workers be healthy - ministers suggesting holding weight loss competitions as a way of encouraging employees to lose weight.

Complex solution

Mr Johnson said: "The core of the problem is simple - we eat too much and we do too little exercise. The solution is more complex.

"From the nature of the food we eat, to the built environment , through to the way our children lead their lives - it is harder to avoid obesity in the modern environment."

Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the expert group on obesity which advised the government on drawing up the strategy, said having an over-arching plan was more important than headline-grabbing initiatives, and welcomed the planned annual reviews of how measures were working.

But she added: "A strategy alone doesn't miraculously help people live healthier lives. It has got to be transformed into concrete action."

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "This announcement is typical of this government - it doesn't get to the root of the problem and provides a poor smokescreen for Labour's failure to make public health a real priority.

Norman Lamb, Lib Dem health spokesman, criticised the plan saying it amounted to "a series of vague aspirations and gimmicks, with few concrete commitments."

The Food and Drink Federation said UK manufacturers were "world leaders" in reformulating products, extending consumer choice and introducing improved nutrition labelling.

But Betty McBride, director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation, said: "The government is backing down from taking on industry in the fight against obesity.

"It is naive to expect voluntary compliance from an industry that is putting hundreds of millions of pounds into promoting these foods every year. Self-interest will always win out."

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