This month Selfridges put on sale a giant five-stone Easter egg – weighing the same as an average nine-year old boy, and providing enough calories to sustain him for more than two months. As the Daily Mail put it, ‘it won’t win any fans at Weight Watchers’.
With a price tag of £499, none of this solid chocolate egg is likely to find its way into the mouths of many British schoolchildren. But lots of other similarly unhealthy food will. Sweet shops and fast-food outlets, often scattered across routes to schools, are presenting healthy eating initiatives with obstacles right outside the school gate.
With recent figures showing that by the age of 10-11 (or year 6), 31.6% of children are overweight or obese, is banning sweet shops and fast-food outlets from selling products to children the answer to childhood obesity? What can central and local government do to limit their impact?
Dr. David Haslam, clinical director of the National Obesity Forum suggests that such outlets should be made to close for half an hour or an hour until 4.30. And the government is not unreceptive to such interventions – in January reminding councils of their powers to prevent fast-food restaurants being built near schools and parks.
Such measures could, however, backfire. The Scottish Council Foundation has warned that punitive anti-obesity measures risk alienating the public by seeming “mean-spirited”. Devoting resources to recreational areas and making people feel safer outside would be more fruitful, thereby increasing people’s willingness to let their children play and exercise outside. London-based think tank Demos has made the same point, arguing that the public realm needs to be more ‘playable’.
As Guardian education correspondent John Crace concluded earlier this month, promoting physical exercise through community initiatives and facilities is the key to combating childhood obesity.
This will require sustained government support – but is more likely to be useful than banning chips and sweets. We will be bringing you much more on the difficulties presented by the obesity pandemic threatening the UK with Pocket Issue: Fat, out in Summer 2008.