By Helen Dickens, Assistant Director of Policy and Campaigns, Diabetes UK and member of the OHA Steering Group
On 9 July 2015, I was invited to attend a workshop set up by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).
Bringing together 19 charities, royal colleges and campaigning organisations, the workshop aimed to: “consider whether a stronger collaboration between partner organisations could help to accelerate progress in preventing and managing obesity and overweight nationwide”.
At the time I was the Head of Prevention at Diabetes UK, and I remember being excited about the opportunity to share this challenge – one of the biggest public health challenges of our time – and work more closely together.
At the workshop we discussed the complexity of the problem and the need for action across a range of issues, from the environments we live in to the role of the food industry.
And we agreed that the scale of the challenge was too large for us to act alone. We went away with a loose agreement that we should develop some collaborative action: taking a unified approach, in particular, to advocating change from policy makers and in understanding – and shaping – public opinion.
Fast forward five years and the vision of the RCP, the commitments made by the organisations that attended that very first workshop and subsequent meetings – and of course a huge amount of collective work, perseverance and ambition – have resulted in a strong, dynamic and influential coalition of over 40 organisations who have worked together tirelessly to press the Government to do more to tackle obesity.
Reflecting on the first five years of the Obesity Health Alliance, we’ve come a long way:
- We’ve created a unified, credible voice for change – it can be hard for more than 40 organisations to align on a single message. But from the very start, the Alliance focused on the most important measures our experts agreed could make the biggest difference: our 10 policy calls [link].
- We’ve become stronger than the sum of our parts – from amplifying campaigns across the Alliance, to pooling precious resources, to developing new evidence: the commitment and dedication of teams across our members has made our coalition a strong and enduring one.
- We’ve started to shift the public debate on obesity – we’ve lobbied to strengthen three chapters of the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan; contributed expert evidence to numerous consultations, parliamentary debates and select committees; responded to Public Health England’s reformulation initiatives; hosted parliamentary events, met with senior stakeholders and Ministers; raised awareness of the general public’s appetite for change; and seen our policy call of a tax on sugary soft drinks become legislation and lead to a dramatic shift in sugar in drinks.
But we still have a long way to go.
Despite their stated target of halving childhood obesity by 2030, the government have yet to implement any of the population level measures outlined in their Childhood Obesity Plan apart from the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (or sugar tax). This just isn’t good enough.
The Covid-19 pandemic has of course changed a lot of things over the last few months – but the need for collective, societal action to help more people enjoy a healthy weight, tackle inequality and reduce associated ill-health remains critical.
I have learned so much from working with the many inspiring, passionate, knowledgeable and tireless colleagues in the Alliance over the last five years. Together we’ve achieved more than we ever could alone; and despite the challenges it’s crucial we keep working together to secure real and lasting change.
The next five years are likely to bring significant further challenges to the health of our population. But we are determined to go far by going together. When we mark our ten-year anniversary we hope we will look back on the introduction bold, game-changing policies that have transformed the food environment, helping more people live healthier lives.