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UK government launches £10 billion campaign to tackle obesity

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced a series of measures to tackle obesity in both children and adults, in light of evidence that suggests it can make people more vulnerable to coronavirus.

The campaign marks the beginnings of a change in focus with regards to healthcare, emphasising preventative measures and public health.

The main action points laid out in the policy paper published by the Department of Health and Social Care are as follows:

  • A new “Better Health campaign”, a call to action urging people to use evidence-based tools to monitor their weight, lose weight and help remain a healthy weight
  • Expanding NHS services to help support people to lose weight, including healthy weight training for care staff, rolling out self-care apps for those with obesity-related illnesses and encouraging GPs to prescribe exercise and social activity to keep patients fit
  • Review the front-of-pack ‘traffic light’ nutritional labelling system on food packaging, introduced by the government in 2013
  • Large out-of-home sector businesses (cafés, takeaways, and restaurants with more than 250 employees) will have to label their food with calorie labels and smaller businesses will be encouraged to do the same
  • Aiming to have calorie labelling on pre-packaged alcoholic drinks as well as for drinks being bought by the glass or on draught
  • Putting in place legislation to prevent promotions on High Fat, Salt and Sugar content food (e.g. buy one get one free) in store and online in England.
  • Banning advertisements for HFSS products online and on TV before 9pm by the end of 2022

These measures are to be put in place in order to reach the government’s target of halving childhood obesity by 2030, reducing adult obesity and reducing inequalities that may increase risk of obesity.

Obesity has been a target for governments for nearly 20 years, with 1 in 3 children leaving primary school overweight or living with obesity today, while 63% of adults are over what is considered a healthy weight with half of them living with obesity.

The government are also concerned about a recent report released by Public Health England which shows the heightened risk of COVID-19 complications as BMI increases both in the UK and internationally, with almost 8% of patients admitted to Intensive Care Units classified as morbidly obese.

Johnson commented, “Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier. If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England remarked that the plans were “ambitious” but needed, saying, “These bold measures will help us tip the scales on obesity. The argument for action is the clearest it’s ever been.”

However, there has been some backlash already against these measures, with a statement from the Advertising Association calling the ban on HFSS advertising “a totally disproportionate measure” suggesting that the government’s new plan doesn’t place enough emphasis on tackling “structural inequalities linked to deprivation that cause higher rates of obesity among people”. People are also concerned about the impact that calorie labelling may have on those with eating disorders, with over 1,600 people signing a petition to stop the compulsory labelling of calories on menus.

Others have said that these measures do not go far enough to tackle obesity, with Katherine Jenner, a campaign Director from the charity Action on Sugar and Action on Salt said “it’s a missed opportunity” for placing mandatory reformulation targets to remove excess calories, sugar and salt from food products, adding it is “absurd that the highly successful soft drinks levy has not been extended to other unhealthy sugar foods and drinks”.

These measures aim to allow the general public to make more informed choices and help sustain a healthy lifestyle, particularly important in the context of COVID-19 where choice and opportunity may be restricted. This new initiative marks the beginning of a more active government approach with regards to healthcare and obesity, a marked difference to Boris Johnson’s earlier position on so-called ‘sin taxes’ – perhaps this approach will prove to be more effective than previous attempts to reduce adult and childhood obesity.

Ipsita Sarkar

Ipsita (also known as Ippy) is the Science and Tech Editor at the Oxford Blue. A second year Medicine student at Trinity College, her hairstyle changes more frequently than the weather.