Maybe the most chilling fact tied to our weight crisis is that 17 percent of our children are obese. Obese children have a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer as adults. But the health consequences of childhood obesity is not just tomorrow’s problem.
A child who is obese for two consecutive years incurs 3.5 times the annual healthcare costs of a non-obese child. The hospitalization costs for obese children have doubled in less than 10 years to approximately $250 million annually.
The good news is that the obesity rate for children — which was on the rise for years — is beginning to flatline. Moms are acting to protect their children by improving their diets and promoting physical activity.
But the commitments by parents are not enough to stop our national weight crisis. What is required is a national commitment. As an economist, the choice is as clear as choosing health and prosperity or illness and health-cost-created bankruptcy.
U.K. acts to reduce obesity
Like the United States, the U.K. faces a childhood obesity epidemic. A third of U.K. children are either overweight or obese.
But unlike the U.S., the U.K. government has proposed a set of national actions to dramatically curtail sugar consumption — which can help address the problem.
The U.K. plan is grounded on economics. Today the U.K. spends more on weight-related health care than it spends on fire service, police and the judicial system.
The U.K. plan also mirrors the type of actions America has taken to curtail tobacco use. U.S. tobacco regulations and taxes have reduced the percentage of Americans who smoke from over 40 percent in 1965, when smoking became a national issue, to today’s 17 percent.
We now have increased granularity on how human behavior changes in scaled proportion to the size of imposed taxes and regulations. States with the highest taxes and most regulation of tobacco have the lowest rate of tobacco use. States with limited taxes or regulation of tobacco consumption have the highest use of tobacco. Tellingly, the states with lower tobacco taxes/regulations also have the lowest levels of human health.
What the U.K. is acting on, and the U.S. has failed to accept, is that weight is now as much of a public health and financial crisis as tobacco consumption.
The U.K. obesity reduction plan
The U.K. government is focusing on curtailing sugar and increasing physical activity to achieve human weight levels that promote health.
The focus on sugar is driven by emerging research that identifies sugar as the most significant diet component causing our national weight crisis.
Soda companies defend sugar as just another calorie. But research now undercuts this premise by identifying the biochemical impacts created through sugar consumption, as well as the consumption of sugar derivatives like fructose. Inducement of insulin resistance is one identified biochemical effect. Insulin regulates how our body uses, or stores, food. Altering our body’s ability to use insulin creates serious health consequences.
The two key policy actions being taken by the U.K. to reduce sugar in foods and beverages are:
1. Taxing sugary sodas
Recognizing the potential for consumer backlash against paying a higher tax for anything, the sugar tax is imposed on soda companies.
The higher tax is intended to create a financial incentive for soda companies to find lower-cost, healthier solutions. The tax also attempts to create a financial incentive for promoting non-sugar beverage sales.
The money raised by the tax will be used to fund healthier school meals and increased youth participation in sport activities.
2. Reducing sugar product content by 20 percent
The U.K. will establish sugar content targets for all foods sold in markets and restaurants — aiming to cut sugar content by 20 percent in three years, using 2015 as a baseline.
Promoting physical activity is a third component of the U.K. plan. The U.K. will fund programs that promote at least an hour of exercise a day for kids.
Making food labels more understandable is the fourth key component of the U.K. plan. Apparently food labels in the U.K. are just as uninformative as they are in the U.S. Both countries’ current labels show a product’s total sugar content.
What is missing is specific consumption information on sugars that are easily over-consumed. The U.K. plan will revise food and beverage labels rule to enable individual portion management through messaging that is understandable and useful.
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