Tam Fry FRSA, Chairman of the National Obesity Forum, discusses whether an end to obesity is no longer a pipedream
The UK’s “forgotten crisis” of obesity – a crisis that has often been compared to that of climate change – will never be beaten until we rid our diet of excessive levels of fat salt and sugar (HFSS). With the recent publication of Henry Dimbleby’s 290p NATIONAL FOOD STRATEGY report, we now have, however, a roadmap to correcting our food problem and saving the world. It will take three years to work through: that is, of course, if in January 2022 the government decides to implement it.
Unfortunately, the omens are not good. Incredulously, Boris Johnson greeted the strategy with one of the more misguided statements that he has made since arriving in Downing St. By declaring that its tax proposals did not attract him because of the burden they would have on hardworking people, he showed that he had neither read the document nor listened to any adviser who could have briefed him on the paper. Indeed, Dimbleby had taken great pains to signpost his proposition as a “Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax” on the food industry, clearly indicating that if food barons minimised the use of HFSS ingredients in their products, they would escape having to pay any penalty and have no need to pass on any charge to the consumer. Since the taxes would be £3 per kilo of sugar and £6 per kilo of salt purchased, how could anybody have thought that it was aimed at the man-in-the-street? When was the last time you saw supermarket customers wheeling such purchases down a check out aisle?
Could obesity end?
The benefit of Dimbleby’s work could be considerable in the context of obesity. By the thorough use of a proven computer modelling system to underwrite his strategy, he was able to suggest that up to 10g of sugar and 0.6g of salt per day would be knocked off the daily consumption of the man-in-the-street reducing his average daily calorie count by up to 38 kcals. At a population level, this could completely halt weight gain. For good measure, Dimbleby also confirmed that he was not proposing any tax on meat, since the modelling warned him of a possible increase in meat prices that would hit poorer households. To ensure that they would not struggle, the revenue received from sugar and salt would be hypothecated to supporting the diets of those in deprived communities.
Johnson should have been prepared for such a proposal since he had already been recommended as much in 2019 by Dame Sally Davies, England’s former Chief Medical Officer. In her last months in office and responding to a directive from number 10 to produce a plan to end obesity, she made further taxes involving sugar her very first recommendation. Her nine years in tenure must have made her acutely aware that the Department of Health was getting nowhere in its bid to see industry voluntarily cut sugar out of its products and obviously had decided that mandatory action was necessary for success. Industry’s pledges voluntarily to reduce salt had also failed. Since 1992, every UK Government had been in thrall to Big Food and now was the time to put an end to it. Unless legislation required companies to do so, they would take no action which might impinge on their habit of selling what they liked, how they liked and where they liked.
Where is obesity policy heading?
Mr Dimbleby has been assured that the government will respond to his strategy by January, but what happens thereafter must be debatable. Again the omens are not good. This Autumn sees the 20th anniversary of successive government’s inability to push through a ban on television commercials for
HFSS products aimed at children, and though that measure was never believed to be able to end obesity by itself, Mr Johnson must ensure that the shilly-shallying ends next year if he is to achieve his stated aim to halve childhood obesity by 2030. The National Audit Office has already told him that his war on fat will be difficult to win even though the target date is still eight years away. Dimbleby’s new work, particularly because it also embraces food security in a rapidly changing climate is, without doubt, something he should be now going to battle with.
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