After much anticipation the UK Government announced this week its much awaited obesity strategy. The strategy is part of a plan to prevent Covid-19 worst outcomes and avoid overbearing health services in England in light of a possible second wave.
The measures included in the strategy range from banning TV and online adverts for unhealthy food before 9pm, to requesting calories to be displayed on restaurant menus. The strategy also includes organising public consultations on alcohol calorie labelling and the ‘traffic light’ labelling system. Another measure announced is the controversial ban on ‘buy one get one free’ deals for unhealthy foods, which has been met with skepticism by the industry, particularly in light of the recently launched Eat Out to Help Out scheme that offers a 50% discount for people to go an eat out to support the economy following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new measures have been met with a mixed reaction from the food industry and healthcare professionals. While some amongst the first category argue that these measures will have very little impact on consumers health but a big impact on industry, the second believe that these are a good first step but don’t go far enough to address the obesity epidemic.
If we look closer into the issue, obesity prevalence has tripled in the UK since the 1980s, and the number of those affected continues to rise at an alarming rate. Based on the latest estimates, up to 63% of England’s population is overweight, with 28.7% being obese. Over 40 serious health conditions are linked to obesity, ranging from type 2 diabetes to cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, liver disease, obstructive sleep apnoea and an increased risk of cancer.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown further light to the problem as almost 8% of patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population. Boris Johnson, a self-declared cheese lover and traditionally very critical of public intervention and “nanny state”, is reported to have changed his mind as a result of his own personal experience with Covid-19, which is believed to have been closely linked to him being severely overweight. The announced measures, driven by the PM, are an example that political will can make a difference. But do the measures go far enough?
It is clear, even to those most skeptic about government-imposed measures, that something needs to be done. But obesity is a complex issue and attempts to tackle it in the past have been insufficient. This has been partly the result of the condition being poorly understood and of a prevalent belief that health is a matter of personal choice and will power. The UK, like other countries, had focus so far on addressing childhood obesity while giving vague advice to adults to prevent them from becoming overweight. Public health strategies have however often forgotten those millions that are already chronically obese and for which healthy eating advice is simply not enough.
Perhaps even more importantly, public health measures and advice on obesity have often forgotten the impact socioeconomic status plays on this issue. Not only is processed sugar and salt heavy food cheaper than fresh food, but often people struggling to make ends meet don’t have the time and resources to cook proper meals.
While the food industry needs to take responsibility and promote reformulation and proper and responsible information for consumers, governments need to acknowledge that this problem can’t be tackled only by restricting unhealthy food and giving healthy eating and exercise advice. Kids need to be properly educated about nutrition from a young age, which will only effectively happen if this is included in school’s curriculum. Meanwhile, adults that are already chronically obese need to be offered safe and science-based alternatives to conventional diets and exercise. More broadly, governments need to make food policy and security a priority and need to approach obesity in a holistic manner.
A promising development in this direction is the also long-awaited National Food Strategy. Part 1 of the strategy was published on 29th July and contains recommendations to support England through the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic focusing on vulnerable children, and to prepare for the end of the EU exit transition period on 31 December 2020. The document already acknowledges the complex nature of obesity and the individual, social and material factors that shape people’s eating habits. A more comprehensive plan for transforming the food system will be included in Part 2 – which is expected to be published in 2021. This second part will include specific recommendations on how the state should intervene to improve people’s eating habits.
It is important to remember that no policy is permanent or fixed. All are subject to change depending on political pressure and engagement, and we can reasonably expect that this sector will attract much interest in the years to come.
The renewed interest in obesity and food policy is undoubtedly a big step in the right direction and we can only hope that this momentum will lead to long lasting transformation on how the Government and we as a society address nutrition and health concerns. But we must keep an open mind, ditch old misconceptions, and tackle these issues through a comprehensive approach.
The Whitehouse team are experts in public health and food policy and regulations, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our food, nutrition and public health policy experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.