29 Jul 2020 Blog: Digesting Boris Johnson’s Obesity Strategy
On Monday 27th July, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a raft of measures to “get the nation fit and healthy, protect themselves against COVID-19 and protect the NHS”[i].
Officially titled ‘Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives’[ii], measures include a ban on TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm; end of deals like ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy food high in salt, sugar and fat; calories to be displayed on menus to help people make healthier choices when eating out – while alcoholic drinks could soon have to list hidden ‘liquid calories’; and finally a new campaign to help people lose weight, get active and eat better after the COVID-19 “wake-up call”.
You can read our full response, including a quote from our Lead Director of Public Health Matthew Ashton, here[iii]. After all the excitement of Monday and as the dust starts to settle, we take a closer look at the strategy and share our honest opinion.
Food Active reaction:
Policy calls satisfied – for now: We must start with the positives first, and we cannot deny the fact that three of our policy calls have been met by this strategy – a 9pm watershed on unhealthy food and drink advertising, restricting promotions by price and place and improving the out of home sector through mandating calorie labelling. This is a fantastic first step and whilst there are many further areas that are undoubtedly important in addressing obesity, we are celebrating this significant progress – especially in light of our next reaction below.
U-turn of the year: It was only just over a year ago that we wrote a blog[iv] about the Prime Minister’s action and opinion on obesity titled ‘5 reasons why Boris Johnson’s ‘sin tax’ comments are wrong’ – yet if you compare the content of that blog to this one you could be fooled into thinking they were talking about a different person entirely. Boris Johnson has had a dramatic U-turn in his stance on obesity in recent months – a U-turn that we certainly didn’t see coming – with reports suggesting that his own experience of COVID-19 had a significant part to play after being told by doctors that his weight status was a reason for the complications he experienced.
Stigmatising coverage: We were very disappointed to see stigmatising language and images being used by many of the papers and broadcasters when reporting on the new strategy. We encouraged members of our local authority network to share our communications guidance (part of the Healthy Weight Declaration package) with their local press to help stamp out this injustice locally, but there is so much more that needs to be done.
Industry backlash: As predicted the strategy received significant backlash[v] from those whose profits will be directly impacted by some of the measures – coincidence? Our friends at Action on Sugar responded to the mint sauce saga perfectly in this recent tweet. Never forget that industry’s priority is and always will be profit, so anything that threatens this – even if it is for the benefit of people’s health, in our opinion the highest law – they will criticise. We expect this backlash to continue in an attempt to put pressure on the Government to abandon their plans and we will work with the Obesity Health Alliance to continue to make the case for these policies.
Emphasising this as a first step: The policy paper states “we are under no illusion that further measures will be needed”. We are very pleased to see this included, as whilst we were delighted to see three of our policy calls being met (not completely, but huge progress!), we are acutely aware that there are some missing gaps in the strategy which we will go on to highlight below.
There are a number of unanswered questions still despite the full policy paper being published.
Will the promotions consultation apply to all retailers?
We are unsure whether the policy on ending multibuy and location-based promotions will apply to all types of retailers – and not just food retailers. This is something we strongly argued for in our consultation response, after our research with UK Health Forum (commissioned by Public Health England) found that this type of marketing was prevalent across traditional non-food stores; such as clothing stores, department stores, DIY stores and many more[vi].
When will calorie labelling be made mandatory for larger businesses?
We are concerned that there are currently no timeframes attached to the implementation of calorie labelling in the out of home sector. This measure has already been subject to significant delay, we submitted our response to the consultation back in December 2018[vii], and we hope the Government does not delay any further.
How far will the 9pm watershed go to address other areas of the marketing mix?
We are expecting the full consultation response for the advertising of unhealthy food and drink to be published by the end of this year. This will undoubtedly go some way to answering this question, but we do fear that there may be some areas of the marketing mix which may not be addressed, such as sports sponsorship (which our sister organisation Healthy Stadia discuss in this recent blog[viii]) and the use of child-friendly characters on food packaging – something a huge number of parents reported as a barrier to providing a healthy diet for their children in a recent survey we carried out with the Children’s Food Campaign[ix].
Where is the energy drinks ban that was promised?
The Government promised us a sales restriction on energy drinks to under 16s all the way back in October 2019 as part of the Prevention Green Paper. But we are yet to hear when this will be put into action, nor see full details of the consultation response which was closed even longer ago in November 2018. In case the Government has forgotten, here is a gentle reminder of why we need a sales restriction on energy drinks to young people[x].
Whilst we welcomed the policy, we still feel there are some missed opportunities for the Government.
It is disappointing that the Government have prioritised funding for weight management services run by the NHS, as opposed to those run by local authority public health who are very well placed to deliver these services – and they already do! We would have also liked to see a commitment to sustainable funding for local authority public health, which plays a pivotal role in local action to address obesity. National action can only go so far and local authorities are doing a fantastic job in the face of significant budget cuts to try and support their local communities to live a healthy lifestyle.
The Government could have taken this opportunity to set a precedent to reduce weight stigma and lead by example. The impact of weight stigma and discrimination is far-reaching and can have psychological, behavioural and social outcomes. We also see it is an injustice, given that our weight is determined by a wide range of factors and not down to individual choice alone, which is how the media appear to portray it. This can be damaging and undermine national and local efforts to address obesity, and we think the Government should step in to finally put an end to this stigma.
Finally, there are a number of Food Active policy priority areas that have not been addressed in this strategy, despite the important role they play in preventing obesity. These include expanding the Soft Drinks Industry Levy to milk-based drinks, scaling up of local powers to address obesity, support for those living in food insecurity/poverty to access and afford a healthier diet, planning restrictions to reduce takeaway density and strategies to improve active travel. Indeed. there are many more beyond our policy priorities that have an important role – the Foresight Report in 2007 identified over 100 different factors that can contribute to overweight and obesity[xi].
However, we realise that we would be very fortunate if one single strategy answered every single one of our policy areas. We are confident that the Government see this as a first step and will continue to build on the progress made this week – and we will work with partners to ensure that the Government keep that promise.