UK government ‘should become first in world to turn tide on obesity’

Ten-year strategy to tackle stigma and phase out junk-food marketing

The UK government could become the first in the world to reverse rising obesity levels by tackling stigma and tightening rules around food sales, a report by a coalition of charities and doctors has said.

In a 10-year strategy, the Obesity Health Alliance set down its plan with measures including much stronger promotion of nutrition and phasing out junk-food.

It said the UK government must lead by example in addressing the “weight bias and stigma” experienced by obese people by making weight problems “an issue of collective, rather than personal responsibility”.

The report said people were exposed to an “obesogenic environment” from birth, “in which calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food is accessible, abundant, affordable and normalised and where physical activity opportunities are not built into everyday life".

The alliance includes the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Diabetes UK and medical colleges.

It said governments failed to tackle obesity since 1991, when ministers set the first target for reducing obesity rates in England to 7 per cent, or 1980 levels, by 2005.

“Many strategies and policies have been announced in the intervening years and yet, 30 years later, this and all subsequent targets have been missed,” the report said.

“Today the majority of adults in England – 68 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women – are above a healthy weight, and over a quarter have obesity (27 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women), with the highest rates among the lowest socio-economic groups.

“Progress towards the current government ambition for childhood obesity in England, set in 2018 – to halve childhood obesity and significantly reduce the gap in obesity between children from the most and least deprived areas by 2030 – seems out of reach.”

In 2014-15, the NHS spent £6.1 billion ($8.36bn) on treating obesity-related ill health and this is forecast to rise to £9.7bn a year by 2050.

The alliance said it fully endorsed government plans to introduce a ban of paid advertising online for unhealthy food and drinks, and new restrictions on their promotion in retail outlets and online.

But it says much more is needed over the next five years, including mandatory nutrient labels on the front of food packs.

It also includes sugar content on front labels and sweeteners on the back of packs, and calorie information on all alcoholic drink labels.

Regulations for obligatory calorie limits on single-serve portions of high fat, sugar or salt products would be introduced if there were a failure to reach calorie-reduction targets.

Advertisements for unhealthy food and drinks in cinemas and on radio would not be allowed before 9pm and outdoor advertising for unhealthy food and drinks would be removed.

Marketing and promotions of unhealthy food and drinks would be banned at family attractions, childcare centres and schools.

Local environments would promote exercise and the NHS would be “size-inclusive” where feasible, with “provision of suitable equipment for people with obesity".

There would be greater clarity on the legal responsibility of employers to not discriminate against employees based on their weight.

Use of cartoons would be limited on packaging of unhealthy food and drinks, along with limits on using celebrities and sports stars, and on-pack promotional offers including giveaways and competition prizes would be curbed.

Only healthier food and drink products could be associated with sports promotion and misleading marketing of food and drinks aimed at infants and young children would end.

Advertising of follow-on formula milk would be banned, and limits to accessibility of unhealthy food and drinks, particularly to older children, would be introduced, including licensing retailers or curbing the hours when products can be sold.

“The majority of people in the UK have a weight classed as overweight or obese and this is likely to continue without ongoing and comprehensive action from government," said Prof Dame Anne Johnson, chair of the expert working group advising the alliance.

“We reviewed the evidence across the multiple factors that influence healthy weight, and if the government commits to bold new policies, we can turn the tide, reducing obesity and greatly improve our nation’s health.”

John Maingay, director of policy and influencing at the British Heart Foundation, said: “After years of focusing on education and awareness measures, the UK government has started to move in the right direction with an obesity strategy that focuses on making the healthy option the easy option.

“We must now build on this with forward-thinking policies, such as placing a levy on companies to encourage them to produce healthier food.”

Prof Linda Bauld, academic lead for the project, said: “Turning the tide on obesity is achievable.

“Over the same three decades in which obesity has continued to rise, UK smoking rates have been halved, achieved through a series of comprehensive government strategies.”

Kate Halliwell, chief scientific officer of the Food and Drink Federation, said it was concerned about some of the recommendations in the report, which were lacking in evidence.

“As we have stated since its mention in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy report, we do not agree that a food tax on the industry will resolve the obesity crisis," Ms Halliwell said.

"As the Chancellor rightly pointed out over the weekend, an additional tax would ultimately impact those families who are already struggling to make ends meet by making food and drink more expensive.

“After what has been a very difficult year for the food and drink industry, including the challenges it currently faces around shortages, businesses in our sector are already operating on very tight margins, and any further costs would simply have to be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher food prices."

Updated: September 27th 2021, 11:16 PM