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Curbing childhood obesity 


Globally, the prevalence of obesity has approximately tripled since 1975. Obesity in children and young people is also on the rise. In 2016, over 340 million children and young people aged 5-19 were considered overweight or obese; in 2019 the same could be said for 38 million children under the age of 5.

Given the serious long-term impact of obesity on children and young people’s health, finding effective prevention and treatment strategies is now a global priority.

Professors at Teesside University have spent the last 6 years working with Public Health England (PHE) and other members of the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health (Fuse) to help shape UK Government health policy and inform obesity guidelines in the USA.

The Research

Research produced by Louisa Ells, Professor of Public Health and Obesity, and PHE demonstrated that increasing prices of high-sugar food and non-alcoholic drinks, potentially through taxation, is likely to reduce purchases of these products in the short term. It also found that marketing strategies such as advertising, discounting, use of character branding and supermarket product placement can influence high-sugar product selection or consumption.

The work of Mandy Cheetham, Research Fellow at Teesside University, built on these findings. Cheetham co-designed the first qualitative research on energy drinks involving primary school children (Hearing Young People's views on Energy drinks: Research) which revealed that energy drinks were easily available in local shops; sold for as little as 25p; and targeted at children through a range of marketing strategies including online adverts, computer games, television, and sports sponsorship.

A further study by Ells, Alan Batterham, Professor of Exercise Science, and Greg Atkinson, Professor of Health Sciences & Biostatistics Research, found that an obese 5-year-old child had a 68.1% chance of remaining obese at 11 years. The chances of a 'normal weight' 5-year-old child becoming obese at age 11 was just 5.7%.

REF 2021 TU Research is addressing childhood obesity

Research from Teesside University resulted in new rules banning the advertising and selling of these products to children, including energy drinks, in children’s media and on supermarket shelves, improving the health and wellbeing of the nation’s young people.

The Impact

This research has shaped policy aimed at curbing the global obesity pandemic and sparked action from the UK's major supermarkets.

Amongst a number of successes, the reviews conducted by Ells directly informed the national PHE sugar reduction report published in October 2015, leading to specific recommendations for a national sugar tax. Following these recommendations, in March 2016, the UK Government announced the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (sugar tax) to take effect from 6th April 2018.

The research also sparked a full public consultation on the marketing and advertising regulations for products aimed at children. This led to new rules banning the advertising of high fat, salt, or sugar (HFSS) food or drink products in children's media, or in other media where children make up over 25% of the audience.

In March 2018, the UK Government's Green Paper directly referenced the Hearing Young People's views on Energy drinks: Research study, proposing a ban of the sale of energy drinks to under 16s. In response to the Green Paper, all the major UK supermarkets introduced voluntary bans on the sale of energy drinks to under 16s.

Centre for Public Health

The Centre for Public Health enables, facilitates, identifies and disseminates public health research in co-production across the University and externally with commissioners and communities - on a local, national and international scale.

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