10 May 2021
The British Dietetic Association has joined Bite Back 2030 and other campaign groups in calling on the Prime Minister to follow through on promises in a number of policy areas concerning last year’s Obesity Strategy. In this blog, BDA Obesity Specialist Group Chair Dr Amanda Avery and Vice-Chair Dr Adrian Brown outline some of the key commitments that the government has made but still needs to deliver on to improve public health.
This government, and those before it, have made a wide range of promises to take action on reducing the prevalence of obesity. They have made commitments on policy areas such as the obesogenic environment, public health and food composition, but in many cases, they have yet to deliver. The British Dietetic Association and its specialist groups, including Obesity Specialist Group, have provided expert input to government consultations, parliamentary inquires and public campaigns on these issues, but are concerned that the pace of change is not fast enough and that the government is failing to act.
Last year the British Dietetic Association welcomed the commitment of the government to drive forward these key promises within the Obesity Strategy. At this time, we pointed out that many of these issues were first consulted on as far back as 2018, but are yet to receive a response from government or concrete policy actions. COVID-19 has no doubt delayed some of the work, but it has also been a stark reminder of the need to support people to improve their health and improve the nation’s resilience to future pandemics. We need the Prime Minister to act and recognise that improving public health should be one of his first priorities.
Food advertising and promotions
There have been no fewer than three consultations on this matter, including on restricting in store promotions of high fat, sugar and salt foods (HFSS), Total restriction of online advertising for HFSS products and Further advertising restrictions for HFSS products. These contained a range of proposals including a 9pm watershed for broadcast advertising, a total ban of online ads and changes to where unhealthy food could be promoted in supermarkets and shops, including the infamous checkout “pester power” displays.
Across all these consultations, the BDA welcomed the ambition, including the fact that these would close the many loopholes that allow companies to advertise unhealthy food to children. We encouraged government to think not only about how to restrict unhealthy products, but promote and encourage the consumption of more healthy foods instead. Critically, whatever systems are put in place there needs to be funding and powers to enforce them. The current arrangements for regulating advertising are inadequate and have been shown to be ineffective, and local trading standards, who would enforce other elements, have been sorely underfunded for a number of years.
We also know that industry is making arguments against many of these proposals, arguing that the economic cost is too high. It is vital that government sticks to its guns, and recognises that the economic cost of ill health and reduced productivity far outweigh the short-term impact on big companies’ ability to sell ever-more unhealthy food.
Front of pack labelling
More recently, the government consulted on changes to front of pack labelling. As we said in our response in October, we welcomed the proposal to make such labels mandatory and argued that the current voluntary model limited the effectiveness of the intervention. We made the case that sticking with the well-established traffic-light label would be easiest to implement and not require consumers to learn a new system.
However, we also made the case that the government needed to go further than just making labels more consistent. It is clear that we need a public education campaign to help people make better use of the information provided. Government also needs to collect its own data so it can better and more independently scrutinise the impact of the policy.
The government first consulted on ending the sale of energy drinks to children all the way back in 2018, and seemed to have agreed to move forward with a ban. The case against selling these often high-sugar, always high-caffeine drinks to under-16s is extremely clear. Current health guidance already recommends they are not suitable, yet, as we highlighted in our response, there are young people who continue to drink them.
Worse, we know that through sponsorships, gamification and online advertising, companies are either inadvertently or deliberately marketing these drinks at children and young people. Many supermarkets have already started enforcing voluntary bans on such sales, but evidence shows they are often purchased in other places. It is time for government to act.
Time to go further
There are of course a number of areas where the government has not even consulted on change, which are fundamental to the successful improvement of public health and indeed the delivery of many of their other commitments.
Funding for public health continues to lag significantly behind the level it was in real terms in 2015/16, and continues to be the “poor relation” in health. This despite the fact that local authority public health is expected to lead on prevention and interventions in a wide range of areas vital to improving health and wellbeing. We have called repeatedly for proper investment, starting with filling the £850 million black hole in public health grant. If the Prime Minister and Health Secretary really want to address obesity and help people to be healthier, they need to start with supporting public health.
Last, but by no means least, the government has a responsibility to lead on ending weight stigma. The government has enormous power to set the agenda and lead the public conversation around obesity and weight, including influencing the way that the media talks and presents about these issues. At the most basic level, we need Ministers to move away from placing responsibility exclusively on individuals, appreciate that obesity is a complex, relapsing condition and avoid stigmatising language. Evidence makes it clear that it is counterproductive and can be harmful.
Centre for Obesity Research, University College London,
Chair, Obesity Specialist Group