Dutch junior health minister Maarten van Ooijen is investigating potential new laws to allow local councils and schools to limit the spread of fast food chains and junk food advertising.
The Netherlands aims to slash the proportion of people who are overweight by 2040, and research suggests that our physical environment can influence unhealthy food choices, Van Ooijen said in a parliamentary briefing.
‘To make our daily food environment healthier, I am exploring the legal possibilities to improve it,’ he wrote. ‘This means giving municipalities instruments to counter the increase in unhealthy food providers, but also to make rules regarding unhealthy drink, sweet and snack machines in, for example, school environments, or to limit the marketing of unhealthy products aimed at children.’
Although the government has already signed a ‘prevention’ agreement aiming to improve the nation’s health, Van Ooijen said that the coronavirus pandemic has starkly illustrated that those with pre-existing conditions or carrying extra weight are vulnerable. ‘There seems to be a connection between being overweight and admission to hospital after a coronavirus infection,’ he pointed out. ‘The pandemic has shown very clearly that an unhealthy lifestyle can have consequences.’
Many municipalities have asked the government to create the legal tools for them to stop an overload in fast food restaurants, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.
‘They see that often empty shop spaces are filled up with fast food restaurants, and they have mixed feelings about this,’ said Ruben van Dorssen, spokesman for the health ministry. ‘On one hand, you are doing all of this work with sports clubs, programmes to get people moving and education at school, and on the other, children are walking through districts where there is a huge amount of advertising and less healthy things on offer.’
In an interview with the AD, Van Ooijen said that there is an urgent need for action. ‘Something really needs to happen because one in seven children is overweight and the trend is getting worse,’ he said. ‘In lower social classes, it is even one in three.’
He said that if local councils and schools had tools to bring their neighbourhoods into better balance, this would support other measures such as a tax on sugary drinks, to help reach national health goals. Currently 62% of Dutch people are predicted to be overweight by 2040 and the country aims to reduce this to 38%.
‘You really don’t want that excessive supply,’ he said. ‘Eating a hamburger or a kebab isn’t a problem. But I don’t want these huge numbers of outlets, and I don’t want them at schools or too nearby.’
A spokesman for the health ministry stressed that research still needs to be done on whether ‘fast food’ can fit into a legal definition, while the proposal is not about banning certain restaurants. Following the debate next week, the minister for preventative healthcare is expected to send a detailed report to parliament later this year.
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