Campaign group Action on Sugar (AOS) has branded measures in the UK government’s child obesity strategy, which is now expected to be delayed until the autumn, as “pathetic”.

AOS claimed it had obtained a leaked copy of the strategy and found measures related to reformulation fell short of what it had called for, while no specific restrictions on marketing had been included.

The campaign group asked for a 50% reduction in sugar and a 20% reduction in fat in food products, but in spite of “compelling evidence”, the draft plan only requires a voluntary 20% sugar reduction by 2020, according to AOS.

On marketing, the campaigners said the strategy contains “no specifics about any marketing restrictions and merely says there will be a consultation which is a pathetic response given the billions of pounds the food industry spends on advertising to young children of unhealthy products”.

The remaining elements of the strategy, AOS said, comprise measures related to healthy school eating, government institutions, better labelling and advice on how to eat healthy, “none of which have been shown to have any effect on calorie intake”. The campaigner added that “very disappointingly there is only a general sentence that salt reduction will be reviewed”.

Last month, the campaign group accused the government of bowing to “strong lobbying” from the food sector to “erode” the strategy.

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By GlobalData

According to AOS, the strategy still includes the planned levy on soft drinks, announced in the March Budget, but believes the chances of this now going through have been “significantly reduced” following the UK vote to leave the European Union.

While it was thought the child obesity strategy might be published before the parliamentary recess, with former Prime Minister David Cameron keen to see it launched as a legacy policy, his earlier than expected departure this week makes this very unlikely. AOS now believes publication has been shelved until the autumn, and urged incoming prime minister Theresa May to “speedily and rapidly revise what should have been one of the UK’s most important public health programmes”.

In an open letter to new UK Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday (13 July), the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents UK food and drinks manufacturers, called for a “firm commitment to avoid introducing planned burdens on business”, along with “urgent action” to address the economic and currency volatility created by the Brexit vote. “The proposed Apprenticeship Levy and Soft Drinks Levy must be placed on pause while uncertainty persists,” FDF director general Ian Wright wrote.

AOS estimates the child obesity strategy in its current form will only reduce calorie intake by around 10-20Kcal/person/day as a maximum, saying this is “nowhere near enough to have any real effect on preventing obesity”.

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University in London and chairman of AOS, said the child obesity strategy was an “insulting response” to the obesity crisis.

“We urge Theresa May to revert back with an evidence-based robust policy to prevent childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. This would also be a major opportunity for her to demonstrate that she is being real in trying to help people who are less well off, particularly the socially deprived. Furthermore, it is a huge opportunity following Brexit for the British food industry which has led the world in reducing salt to also lead the world in preventing obesity and type 2 diabetes.”

The Department of Health told just-food it remains committed to the strategy. “Any suggestion that we are diminishing the ambition or the measures we take to reduce child obesity are quite wrong. There isn’t yet a final version of the obesity strategy,” a spokesperson for the DoH told just-food.  “The new Prime Minister and the Cabinet will be working over coming days and weeks to establish their priorities and how we deliver on these commitments.”

Last month, a DH spokesperson told just-food it was “ridiculous” to suggest pressure from the country’s food sector had “severely eroded” the child obesity strategy.