Queen’s Speech addresses key obesity prevention plans

obesity prevention
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Mhairi Brown, Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Action on Salt and Action on Sugar, ponders the Queen’s speech discussing the Government’s commitment to legislate their key obesity prevention plans by 2022

This year’s Queen’s Speech spoke of the Government’s commitment to legislate some of their key obesity prevention plans by April 2022, including:

  • Restrictions on advertisements of unhealthy food and drinks pre-9pm watershed on TV and a total ban online
  • Introducing secondary legislation to require large out-of-home sector businesses with 250 or more employees in England to apply calorie labels to menus
  • Restricting price and location promotions in store of unhealthy food and drinks in England

The Queen’s words were slightly unexpected for those working tirelessly to prevent ill health – I say unexpected because the food industry has heavily lobbied against these policies since they were announced back in 2018. The government kept their cards hidden until the last moment before showing their winning hand. But anyone with experience of policymaking knows that it’s not over until it’s over – it is more important than ever for the Government to stand strong and get these policies over the line as promised.

The need for these measures

The world around us affects how we eat. Ideally, eating a healthy, balanced diet would be a choice without influence, but the reality is less healthy food and drinks take centre stage.  All too often it’s the less healthy options that are most accessible, available and affordable to us and not the healthy, nourishing ones.

The advertising we see on TV and online places unhealthy food and drink products in a starring role, with the majority featuring products high in fat, salt and sugar. Over the last year, we’ve spent a lot of time in lockdown, but as a result, our screen time and exposure to these adverts have only increased, particularly online. Who hasn’t seen adverts for snacks, ice cream and confectionery while scrolling through social media? If you haven’t, you will be firmly in the minority. As highlighted by the Department of Health and Social Care, this advertising can affect what children eat in the short term by increasing the amount they eat and in the longer term by shaping their food preferences. There is even evidence that advertising impacts adult’s purchasing and consumption behaviour(1).

Whilst we may have been in lockdown for much of 2020 and the first half of 2021, this hasn’t stopped us from eating food from restaurants, cafes and takeaways – all thanks to the rapidly expanding delivery companies.

Of course, moving online and to a collection/delivery model has been a necessity over the past 15 months, but a necessity that has, in many cases, favoured the large companies who have seen their businesses boom during the pandemic – unlike our neighbourhood, family-run restaurants. Meals from these large chains tend to come in larger portions and are much higher in calories, salt, sugar and saturated fat compared to the options we would buy at the supermarket. For example, a Pizza Express Margherita Pizza bought in a supermarket has 608 calories per portion, compared to 834 calories in the same pizza available in a Pizza Express restaurant. Unlike at the supermarket, meals in the Out of Home sector don’t come with colour-coded nutrition labels or information about what’s in them. This can only come from a purposeful search or inquiry to their head office.

Why have these measures been so hard to get across the line?

Since the policies were originally proposed in 2018, the food and drink industry has fought hard with wildly inaccurate claims such as the impact on small businesses who, as it turns out, will be exempt from policies such as calorie labelling. In fact, it’s only big businesses with more than 250 employees who will be subject to the calorie labelling legislation and many of them already have to label on their menus.

Another claim is that the advertising restrictions will stop companies from advertising products known to be high in fats such as olive oil and avocados, despite numerous consultations stating that only a limited number of product categories will be covered (none of which would cover olive oil or any vegetables). There’s also pushback that reformulated products would still not be able to advertise so, for example, a 30% reduced sugar chocolate bar would likely not meet the criteria to enable advertising, despite a lower sugar content. Whilst it is true that certain products will remain unhealthy products, regardless of adjustments to recipes, in most cases, food and drink companies can gradually reduce levels of the unnecessary unhealthy elements, such as salt, sugar and saturated fat. They can also increase fibre and use wholegrains whilst continuing to sell, promote and advertise their products which are better for our long-term health.

Economy versus health

Whilst there has been much discussion of economy versus health throughout this pandemic, the simple fact is that unhealthy food is linked to poor health and a less productive workforce. The Government has long recognised that the balance is firmly in favour of unhealthy food, and with their Childhood Obesity Plan and the more recent Tackling Obesity strategy from the Prime Minister, they have been trying to redress this balance, create a healthier environment and protect our health. This includes high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, stroke – all of which are in part linked to poor diet.

Had these measures been implemented many years ago, as a nation, we would have come into the pandemic a more healthy and resilient population. Research published in the Lancet(2) in May 2021 showed that any extra weight above a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 23 – and around three-quarters of adults in England have a BMI of 23 and above – increases the risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. That association is stronger in younger adults and Black people.

What is standing in the way now?

It’s worth remembering that just because the Queen announced the policies, it doesn’t mean they have the final go-ahead. Lobbying seems to have increased, with spurious claims for self-regulation gaining momentum. With an implementation date of April 2022, there is still plenty of time to derail this train which is why we cannot simply ignore the public’s support of these policies. Almost 80%(3)of people support calorie labelling in restaurants and cafes, and 69%(4) would be more likely to visit an outlet that displayed calorie labelling than one that did not. Most people (72% and 66% respectively)(5,6) also support a 9pm watershed and restricting price promotions on unhealthy products. The health and economic benefits cannot be ignored either. The Government’s own impact assessments for the policies found that a total online ban on unhealthy advertising and restricting price and location promotions of unhealthy products are estimated to save the economy and the NHS around £3 billion each, whilst calorie labelling could save £5.5 billion.

Now is the time to finally understand obesity as a disease and recognise the role played by the environments in which we live and work which is why we need our ministers to follow through with the proposed legislation and not fold under pressure.

(1) https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/total-restriction-of-online-advertising-for-products-high-in-fat-sugar-and-salt-hfss/introducing-a-total-online-advertising-restriction-for-products-high-in-fat-sugar-and-salt-hfss

(2) Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol 2021; 9: 350–59 https://doi.org/10.1016/ S2213-8587(21)00089-9

(3) Public Health England. (2018). Calorie reduction: The scope and ambition for action.

(4) Diabetes UK. (2018). Public Views on food labelling survey. ComRes interviewed 2,121 UK adults online, aged 18+, between 12th -14th Jan 2018. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all UK adults by age, gender, region and social grade. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules

(5) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-public-consultation-on-total-ban-of-online-advertising-for-unhealthy-foods

(6) https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/restricting-promotions-of-food-and-drink-that-is-high-in-fat-sugar-and-salt/outcome/restricting-promotions-of-products-high-in-fat-sugar-and-salt-by-location-and-by-price-government-response-to-public-consultation


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