The Commons health select committee said it was “extremely disappointed” with the government’s current plans to fight obesity, and said ministers had ignored proposals from experts and had failed to go far enough.
In a report published on Monday, there was specific criticism of there being “no mention of price promotions” despite experts recommending there should be controls on supermarkets discounting unhealthy food and drinks aimed at children.
“We are extremely disappointed that the government has rejected a number of our recommendations,” said Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee.
“These omissions mean that the current plan misses important opportunities to tackle childhood obesity.
“Vague statements about seeing how the current plan turns out are inadequate to the seriousness and urgency of this major public health challenge.
“The government must set clear goals for reducing overall levels of childhood obesity as well as goals for reducing the unacceptable and widening levels of inequality.”
The attack on the government’s plan from the influential committee was supported by a number of health bodies, which also condemned the plan as inadequate – in spite of their support for its flagship measure, the sugary drinks tax.
Prof Russell Viner of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “The fight against obesity is going to be long and hard – and the health committee is right: without action across a number of areas, any impact of individual policies will be minimal.”
The British Retail Consortium had told the committee that regulation was needed to ensure that all supermarkets and other shops stop promotions of high-fat and high-sugar foods, but the government ignored that recommendation. Public Health England, the government’s advisory body, also supported it.
“We are extremely disappointed that the government has not regulated to provide the ‘level playing field’ on discounting and price promotions which industry representatives themselves have told us is necessary for the greatest progress,” said the committee’s report.
The Committee of Advertising Practice, a sister organisation of the AdvertisingStandards Authority, has announced new restrictions on advertisements for high-fat and high-sugar foods on non-broadcast media – such as on smartphones – but the select committee said that was not enough.
“We urge a re-examination of the case for further restrictions on advertising of high fat, salt and sugar food and drink in the light of the most recent research not only on the effect of such advertising, but on the scale and consequences of childhood obesity,” said the report.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health backed the conclusions.
“We’ve said time and again that it was an error for government to exclude TV junk food advertising restrictions in their obesity plan,” said Viner.
“We know these adverts have an effect on the type of food children consume, and experts from across the health sector, parents and the health select committee agree that a ban prior to the 9pm watershed is vital to help tackle the obesity crisis.”
MPs applauded the announcement of a tax on sugary drinks, but called on the government to monitor whether drinks companies pass on the tax in the form of higher prices and whether they also raise the prices of their unsweetened drinks, such as water, as well. They also call for sweetened milk drinks to be included – at the moment they are exempt.
The Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 health charities, campaign groups and royal medical colleges, said: “It’s reassuring to see the committee reiterate the importance of tackling childhood obesity, which has reached a devastating high. We agree that a range of actions are needed to protect our children’s health.
“Current loopholes in junk food marketing restrictions leave children exposed to unhealthy food and drinks during the programmes they watch the most; so we especially welcome the committee’s recommendations to extend these restrictions to include primetime TV shows.
“We look forward to seeing the government adopt further measures to help fight the obesity crisis.”