Recent headlines on the severe levels of obesity in primary school age children are indeed shocking; with nearly twice as many children in year six classed as severely obese as those in reception. The health risks including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer are well documented. It can also shorten a person’s life by 10 years – equivalent to lifelong smoking.
These headlines have prompted me to research what has been achieved since Change4Life was launched in 2009. The first of its type, this social marketing campaign set out to change the behaviours and circumstances that lead to weight gain.
The campaign recognises several critical factors:
- Obesity is a complex problem with many drivers, including our behaviour, environment, genetics and culture.
- Tackling childhood obesity is a long-term goal
- At its root obesity is caused by an energy imbalance: taking in more energy through food than we use through activity.
- Long-term, sustainable behaviour change will only be achieved through the active engagement of industry, schools, communities, families and individuals.
Against this backdrop, the role of Change4Life is to help families adopt the behaviours that prevent unhealthy weight gain; for example, to reduce children’s intake of sugar and encourage at least 60 minutes of activity per day. However, there is no handy text book solution on how to deliver such behaviour change campaigns.
The Change4Life campaign has raised awareness of the links between unhealthy behaviours and long-term health harms and outcomes; the sheer number of news stories on the topic is testament to this. It has capitalised on the power of technology to support healthier choices; the January 2016 Change4Life Sugar Smart campaign inspired millions to download the Sugar Smart mobile app and a survey of mums who had used the app found most of those with 5-11 year old children agreed the app has prompted them to make a healthy change by cutting their families sugar intake. And they have worked in partnership with Disney to chunk 60 minutes of physical activity into exciting 10-minute bursts of activity.
The School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme gets a free piece of fruit or vegetable into children’s hands each school day and the Change4Life schools programme provides a wealth of curriculum linked teaching resources help children eat better and move more.
National partnerships with the retailers and the manufacturers are crucial to delivering more effective campaigns and ensuring the messages reach the people who will really benefit from them. By working in partnership, sharing expertise and co-creating campaigns Change4Life shines a light on healthier choices.
The campaign sits alongside fiscal policy. With nine teaspoons of sugar in a 330ml can of cola, instantly taking children above their recommended maximum for the day, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (or the Sugar Tax as it has been nicknamed) launched in April aims to incentivise manufacturers to remove added sugar from soft drinks. The revenue is then being invested in giving school-aged children to encourage physical activity and balanced diets starting with an investment in healthy breakfast clubs.
Notwithstanding the pressure on marketing budgets over the last few years, progress is being made in ensuring people know what they need to do to live healthy lives and are motivated to do so. Campaigns such as Change4Life are driving cultural acceptance of healthy behaviours and offering tools to help people to start on their behaviour change journey. And perhaps most importantly, galvanising and amplifying the efforts of those working to tackle obesity across the commercial, voluntary and public sectors; Government cannot meet these challenges alone.
There is a long way to go and it will demand innovation and collaboration. But the evidence on smoking where ten years plus of concerted effort with marketing working alongside other levers such as taxation has reduced smoking prevalence, I would like to think that campaigns such as Change4Life can help achieve the goal of reducing childhood obesity.
Jane Asscher is chief executive and founding partner at 23red