Liz Truss’s plans for the UK’s anti-obesity strategy, which could see the axing of many measures to help reduce the country’s intake of fat, salt and sugar, have been labelled as ‘disastrous’ by experts and “profound concern” has been expressed by health and medical organisations in an open letter to Truss.
The open letter, coordinated by The Obesity Alliance, is signed by over 70 organisations including the BMA, Diabetes UK, British Liver Trust, British Dental Association, Royal College of Nursing, Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation, and the Royal Society for Public Health. The sheer breadth of health areas covered by the signatories’ organisations reflects just what a major and broad impact obesity has on health.
The letter reminds Truss that by implementing the “forward thinking policies,” of the obesity strategy that are “grounded in strong evidence,” the health of the nation will improve and “thus increase economic growth and reduce state spending.”
The letter strongly urges Truss “to reconsider any plans to weaken the public health
Measures in the strategy that might be dropped include the 2018 ‘sugar tax’. This introduced a tax on high sugar products, particularly targeted at fizzy drinks. Other measures, that could be axed, are only just being introduced, such as calorie labelling on menus, and a restriction on the location in retail for foods high in fat, salt and sugar scheduled for implementation next month.
Two other major policies, restrictions on multibuy deals and restrictions on advertising on TV and online, have already been delayed, until October 2023 and January 2024, respectively.
Obesity is a major issue in this country, with almost two-thirds of the adult population in Britain overweight or obese. With the prevalence of adult and childhood obesity much higher in deprived communities, any measures to tackle the issue will benefit less well-off communities the most.
The cost to an already over-stretched and underfunded NHS is massive. In 2019/20 there were more than 1 million hospital admissions linked to obesity in England, an increase of 17% on the previous year. Obesity-related conditions include diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal conditions. The cost of obesity to the NHS is forecast to rise to £9.7 billion per year by 2050.
The government’s anti-obesity strategy, although it did not go as far as many campaigners wanted, was a step in the right direction. Efforts to reduce salt, sugar and fat through voluntary measures previously had largely failed to have any impact.
The first measure – the ‘Sugar Tax’ – has proved highly successful. A study published in early 2021 in the BMJ concluded that the sugar tax had been very effective at making manufacturers reformulate products – lowering sugar content to avoid higher prices for their products.
All parts of the anti-obesity strategy are based on strong evidence, notes Professor Graham MacGregor: Chairman of the charity Action on Sugar and Salt, and scrapping it would be “disastrous to both public health and also to the many food businesses which have spent years and vast amounts of money preparing for this change in policy.”
“Now, more than ever, the UK population needs equitable access to healthy, affordable food and this can only be achieved with policies designed to rebalance our food system.”
Katherine Jenner, the director of the Obesity Health Alliance, a grouping of over 40 health charities and medical organisations, told the Guardian:
“There are few policies that are good for business, good for health and good for government. The soft drinks industry levy [sugar tax] is one of them.”
According to a Guardian report, however, Truss will have difficulties repealing the sugar tax “as Whitehall sources say there is “a question mark” over how the prime minister can overcome a number of legal and parliamentary procedural obstacles to abandoning the soft drinks industry levy.”
In fact, all the measures scheduled for introduction are already in law, so any reversal of the strategy would mean parliamentary time being given over to repealing laws put in place within the last two years and with the current high inflation and cost of living crisis, this hardly seems a good use of precious parliamentary time.
There is strong support from the public for the strategy as well. A recent survey carried out by YouGov for Cancer Research UK, found 60% of people support the restrictions on junk food advertising, as well as a ban on paid-for online junk food advertising being implemented in January 2023 as originally planned. Just one in five disagreed with the ban.
Truss has dressed-up scrapping the changes as being about helping people in the cost of living crisis, but it’s hard to see how it will help.
Chief executive of Cancer Research UK, Michelle Mitchell, said:
“Claims by industry and the Government that these delays will help address the cost of living crisis are grossly misleading.”
Not only has the sugar tax raised around £1 billion since it was introduced to fund important activities like school breakfasts for vulnerable children, but the evidence is that the planned changes in advertising, marketing and location of junk food will actually save people money as they will buy less junk food, less often.
And in the long-term reducing obesity will reduce the cost to the NHS.
The only clear winners of any move by Truss to scrap the changes in the obesity strategy are the food and drink manufacturers, who will be able to continue using advertising and marketing strategies that encourage bulk buying of junk food.
Even before Truss became PM, there was evidence that the government’s commitment to tackling the obesity epidemic was waning rapidly. In April 2022 the government removed £100 million in funding for NHS weight management services, despite research showing that these services, a broad range of health advice, information and behaviour change support services, can be an effective intervention to support lasting health improvement.
The cut to services was condemned at the time by the Obesity Alliance, which accused the government of “‘short-termism’, where services that deliver long-term benefits are sacrificed for short-term savings.”
At the time there were also rumours that despite widespread public support of the measures to tackle junk food marketing and advertising and it already being law, the strategy was under review.
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