Plans to scrap England’s anti-obesity measures ‘a national scandal’

Some have warned plans to abandon policies are ‘dangerous’, while others welcome reversal amid rising costs

Abandoning policies to tackle obesity would be “dangerous for the public’s health” and lead to people eating even more unhealthy food, a senior doctor and leading campaigner has warned.

“Assuming that the reports are correct, then I think that it’s a national scandal that they are going to let the food industry let more people become obese.

“Surely the government has a duty of care to their population? Politicians are meant to be our servants. It’s not their duty to prioritise the profits of the food industry,” said Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular health at the Wolfson Institute of Population Health and Barts in London.

“Scrapping anti-obesity measures, if that’s what’s happening, would be dangerous for the public’s health.”

MacGregor, who is also the chair of campaign group Action on Sugar, was responding to the Guardian’s disclosure that ministers have instigated a review of strategies which are either already being used or are due to be implemented in England to address the obesity crisis.

Whitehall sources say that Liz Truss is minded to abandon all the existing policies, including bans on “buy one get one free” type multibuy offers, displays of sweet treats at supermarket checkouts and adverts for junk food being shown on TV before the 9pm watershed.

It is understood that the government’s “internal review of obesity policy” was ordered by the Treasury but is being undertaken by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). The DHSC believes that it needs to monitor the impact of restricting the promotion of junk food in light of the soaring cost of living. Food inflation is running at 13.1%, new figures on Wednesday showed.

Tam Fry, the chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “Once again the interests of big business have dangerously overridden the interests of the man in the street. Though £6bn might be the annual cost of treating obesity, the overall cost to the nation of obesity and the serious medical conditions that it triggers is £58bn a year. That is an obscene cost which the taxpayer has to bear.”

Obesity contributes to at least 64,000 deaths a year in England, said William Roberts, the chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health. In light of this, “the news that the obesity strategy is under review is of concern and runs counter to support across industry and the public”, he said.

“Far from being a nanny state, this is about the government making a sensible economic investment in the health and wealth of our nation and the NHS for decades to come,” he added.

However, the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market thinktank, welcomed the review. “Scrapping policies that make food and drink more expensive during a cost of living crisis is a no-brainer,” said Christopher Snowdon, its head of lifestyle economics. “We are long overdue a prime minister who puts the interests of consumers over the interests of nanny state pressure groups. Let us hope Liz Truss is that prime minister.”

Beat, a charity which helps people with eating disorders, also welcomed the review, especially because it is opposed to the display of calorie counts on menus in cafes, takeaways and restaurants, which became mandatory last April.

“We’re extremely concerned about the effect that some of the government’s initiatives have on the 1.25 million people in the UK with eating disorders, most notably the introduction of calories on menus, and sadly we have seen the impact of these damaging policies through the people we support. For instance, we know that calories on menus can worsen eating disorder thoughts and behaviours,” said Tom Quinn, Beat’s director of external affairs.

“The government’s evidence base for implementing many parts of the anti-obesity strategy is weak, and at Beat we’d welcome the opportunity to contribute to the review of the strategy,” he added.

Public health and medical groups fear that the review’s “internal” nature may means they cannot make representations. The Guardian has asked the DHSC to clarify if external organisations will be able to share their views and evidence with officials.

Conservative peer James Bethell, who was a health minister under Boris Johnson, defended the anti-obesity strategy, saying it helped the public, especially children, navigate junk foods.

“I do think we underestimate the addictive nature of sugar, salt and fat. The environment around food, particularly for kids, has become very difficult for people to make sensible decisions, so they are looking for help to change this.”

Lord Bethell rejected suggestions on Twitter that individuals should be wholly responsible for the outcome of their life choices, including meeting healthcare costs if they had failed to live a healthy lifestyle.

“The biggest healthcare costs are often incurred by people who are (1) least capable and often totally incapable of paying them and (2) exacerbate lots of other costs that the state will pick up in the end,” he said.


Denis Campbell and Pippa Crerar

The GuardianTramp

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