Review of government’s anti-obesity strategy is ‘ludicrous’ say charities after lockdowns ‘exacerbated’ poor diets

Liz Truss’ government has said it is reviewing legislation to prevent kids eating junk food, despite almost one in four Year 6 pupils classified as obese

The UK government could scrap its anti-obesity strategy as ministers have ordered an official review of measures aimed to discourage people from eating junk food, reports have suggested.

The review could mean Prime Minister Liz Truss’ government would end a ban on sugary products being displayed at checkouts, “buy one get one free” deals in shops, and restrictions on advertising certain products on TV before the 9pm watershed, according to The Guardian.

Liz Truss’ government has said it is reviewing legislation to prevent kids eating junk food

The review was ordered by the Treasury and is part of the Prime Minister’s aim to cut burdens on business and help consumers through the current cost of living crisis.

The process will also look at possibly getting rid of calorie counts on menus in many cafes, takeaways and restaurants, which were designed to encourage people to choose healthier dishes and became mandatory in April.

The review may even look at whether the sugar tax, which began in 2018 to help make soft drinks much less unhealthy, should also be removed.

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The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that in light of an “unprecedented global economic situation” the Government has commissioned an internal summary of its obesity policy, and will continue to monitor the impact of the restrictions.

The Government said it remains committed to doing everything it can to help people live healthier lives and addressing obesity “remains a priority”.

Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance, said: “We are deeply concerned by rumours suggesting that the government might drop obesity policies which are designed to put healthy affordable food in the spotlight.

“This will not help the cost of living crisis in the short term, and in the long term would lead to serious consequences for our health, our economy and our NHS.”

She added that poor diets, exacerbated by lockdown, have led to an increase in childhood obesity, and “further widened existing inequalities”.

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In 2018, the Government launched the plan to halve childhood obesity by the year 2030.

NHS Digital data shows one in five (20.1%) pupils were obese or severly obese during their last year of primary school in the 2017/18 school year, just before the Government set out its ambition.

That number subsequently rose for three consecutive years, jumping to a whopping one in four (25.5%) in 2020/21, during the Covid pandemic. It fell to 23.5% in 2021/22, according to provisional figures, still the second highest proportion since records began in 2006/07.

In some parts of England, more than a third of Year Six pupils were obese in the 2019/20 school year – the last year with local data, due to the impact of lockdown on the school measuring programme. Almost two-fifths (38.1%) of pupils were obese in the worst affected area, Walsall, near Birmingham.

There is also a strong link between deprivation and obesity.

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In 2020/21 (the latest data), Year Six pupils in the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to be obese compared to those from the least deprived – 33.8% versus only 14.3%.

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“Big, multinational companies promote and advertise unhealthy food and drink to those on lower incomes, leading to increases in obesity, in inequalities, and in pressure on the NHS to treat the resulting poor health, such as cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes,” said Ms Jenner.

She added that the Soft Drinks Industry Levy is an “extremely successful policy” that reduced the amount of sugar in soft drinks by 30% without leading to a fall in sales.

It also raised money that was specifically allocated to providing meals to deprived children through the National School Breakfast Programme.

“It is utterly ludicrous to scrap a smart, effective and longstanding policy that supports crucial steps to help feed hungry children,” Ms Jenner added.

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“It would be reckless, and a great shame to waste government and business time and money rowing back on these obesity policies, which are evidence-based and already in law.

“These policies are popular with the public who want it to be easier to make healthier choices.  Not implementing these evidence-based policies is a kick in the teeth to families trying their hardest to live well on a budget.”

However, eating disorder charity Beat said it “welcomes” the review of the Government’s anti-obesity strategy.

The charity’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, said: “We’re extremely concerned about the effect that some of the Government’s initiatives are having on the 1.25 million people in the UK with eating disorders, most notably the introduction of calories on menus.”

He said the charity has seen the impact of these “damaging policies” through the people we support, as for instance, “we know that calories on menus can worsen eating disorder thoughts and behaviours”.

“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,” Mr Quinn added.

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“We continue to urge the Government to implement health policies that do not harm those affected by these serious mental illnesses.”