Public health and the Sugar Summit

December is probably the worst possible time to be writing about obesity. This month of all months, when most of us suspend our critical faculties for the festive period in order to enjoy lots of delicious food and do very little indeed, is not the time to be pointing out that two thirds of us are overweight or obese, and that, left unchecked, this will eventually bankrupt the NHS.

There has, however, been a definite uptick in activity in recent months on the topic, especially on childhood obesity. In October, Public Health England published a report on how to cut down the amount of sugar we consume. The Health Select Committee weighed in with their own report on childhood obesity a month later. The Prime Minister himself is to launch the Government’s own report on bringing down rates of childhood (but not adult) obesity in January. This is a lot of work in a policy area that is often neglected.

It is often neglected because actually dealing with obesity is something of a policy nightmare, for elected politicians at least. It’s not that there isn’t a surprising amount of consensus on much of the problem. Almost everyone agrees that too many people are too fat and that this is causing too much of a strain on the NHS, if only because the conditions related to obesity are expensive to treat. Almost everyone also agrees on the direct reason for this obesity, which is that too many people consume too many calories (a lack of physical activity is a problem, but most concur that it’s the calorie consumption which is the real issue).

Perhaps what is more surprising is, as seen at the recent Sugar Summit in London, there isn’t even that much of a divide between groups such as Action on Sugar and the food industry they so often attack. Unlike, say, tobacco companies (who “big food” are often compared to), the vast, vast majority of food and drink manufacturers acknowledge that too many calories are bad for people. They as much as charities in the sector would like to see healthier consumers, if only because they are more likely to live longer and so buy more (and perhaps buy more of the diet alternatives many companies also make).

There is of course a divide in how to get there – but again, perhaps not as big a one as may be expected. For Action on Sugar, targets to reduce the amount of salt, sugar and fat must be set and they must be monitored and enforced by a new, entirely independent Government body. Furthermore, there must be a 20% tax imposed on sugar-sweetened drinks and confectionary to be increased if companies fail to reformulate their products.

Most of the industry and the Government have long fought against such suggestions and the chances of there being either a new Government agency to enforce rules on product composition and a tax to pay for this agency still remain slim. And yet sections of industry and the Government have tacitly acknowledged that their previous preferred approach – a purely voluntary system relying on the goodwill of commercial organisations – will not make a dent in levels of obesity.

The best example of this is the quiet death of the Coalition’s flagship “Public Health Responsibility Deal”, which sought pledges on improving public health from the food, drink and alcohol sectors, in lieu of legislation. It also seems as though the Government will press ahead with at least some restrictions on advertising foods high in sugar, salt and fats to children in their forthcoming childhood obesity strategy. As for industry, the British Retail Consortium have announced that they are now in favour of mandated targets to bring down levels of sugar in food and drink products.

Such moves are hardly universal – the BRC only represents one segment of the food and drink industry after all – and they are cautious; it is still highly unlikely that the Government will introduce any sort of tax on sugary drink. But they are moves towards a bigger role for specific targets and tighter rules nonetheless. What’s more, such rules which may well be piloted with children first, as that is much safer political ground, but later extended to adults. Quietly, slowly, hesitantly, it does seem like the terms of the decade-long argument over how to tackle obesity are shifting – and that groups like Action on Sugar are winning.