Boris Johnson leads charge to battle UK obesity

The British prime minister launched the campaign after his weight contributed to severe coronavirus symptoms in April

Boris Johnson out running, practising what he is preaching to the British public. Shutterstock
Boris Johnson out running, practising what he is preaching to the British public. Shutterstock

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has led a campaign to crack down on obesity after his own weight seemed to contribute to the severe coronavirus symptoms that put him in intensive care in April.

Under the banner of the Better Health initiative, the British government has introduced new measures to combat the nation’s weight problem, such as a ban on junk food advertisements before 9pm, both online and on TV, as well as the removal of sweets and chocolates from supermarket checkouts.

The scheme will also put an end to "buy one, get one free" deals that promote high-calorie items, and force large restaurants with more than 250 employees to list the number of calories in each meal.

England's Department of Health has said that it will consult on whether calorie counts should also be added to alcohol products before the end of the year and is considering whether the ban on junk food adverts should be extended beyond 9pm.

National Health Service weight-loss programmes are to be strengthened under the plans, with doctors encouraged to prescribe exercise to patients who are obese.

The UK government has linked its plans to tackle obesity to its preparations for a possible second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain has been one of the worst-hit countries in the world by the disease.

Mr Johnson’s enthusiasm for addressing Britain’s weight issue has been directly informed by his own brush with death after he was taken to hospital with coronavirus symptoms more than three months ago. In the aftermath, he has blamed his own weight for the complications.

Data from Public Health England shows that the risk of dying from Covid-19 increases by 90 per cent for people with a body mass index of more than 40, making them obese.

Public Health England said more than 60 per cent of adults in Britain were overweight or obese and Mr Johnson issued warnings in the past that the UK was one of the fattest countries in Europe.

“Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier,” Mr Johnson said ahead of the rollout of the plans.

"If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus - as well as taking pressure off the NHS," he said.

Mr Johnson’s plan to tackle obesity is almost a complete about-turn from his previous position on the problem, when he opposed government interference and so-called sin taxes.

Mr Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron, had touted far-reaching reforms in 2015 to curb obesity. However, they eventually amounted to little more than a levy on drinks manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar in their products.

The prime minister called for a review of the sugar taxes when he came to office last year.

Writing in the Telegraph, Health Secretary Matt Hancock emphasised the savings that would be made to the NHS if the nation was more active.

"If everyone who is overweight lost five pounds it could save the NHS more than £100 million over the next five years. And more importantly, given the link between obesity and coronavirus, losing weight could be life-saving," he said.

Minister of State in the Department of Health and Social Care Helen Whately said there was evidence that advertising of unhealthy foods had an influence on children, particularly those from more deprived backgrounds who were more likely to be overweight.

"The fact is, you don't get overweight overnight from eating too much on one day,” Ms Whately said on Monday. “You become overweight from eating a bit extra for many, many days over a period of time so eating a bit less over time is what's needed in order to lose weight."

Health providers and charities have welcomed the move. Advertisers, however, have questioned the benefits of the measures.

Sue Eustace, director of public affairs at the Advertising Association, said that Britain already had some of the strictest advertising rules in the world. “Children's exposure to high fat, salt and sugar adverts on TV has fallen by 70 per cent over the past 15 years or so,” she told the BBC, “but there's been no change to obesity".

Updated: July 27, 2020 10:15 PM


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