A ban on junk food ads and harmful cut-price deals? About time. But corporate power could derail the government’s plans
Junk food bogofs (buy one get one free) are no more. Sweets and crisps are out of sight when dad reaches the supermarket till with fractious kids. The ads during Britain’s Got Talent are for cars and shampoo, not pizza or burgers, let alone fries. If everything proposed in the government’s second attempt at a childhood obesity plan actually happens, we could be on course for real progress in countering one of the most dangerous, intractable and expensive health issues of our time.
The government has at last got it. The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has declared its ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, unveiling a package of measures that will start to dismantle the unhealthy eating environment that families cannot now escape. One in five of our children are actually obese when they leave primary school. We have the highest obesity rates in western Europe, says the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Obesity is so pervasive because fat, salt and sugar-laden foods have become the norm. Families buy them because they are cheap, easy, full of flavour(ings), heavily promoted in bright primary colours and all around us. They are what children are brought up on and learn to prefer.
Measures to tackle what the Foresight report called “the obesogenic environment” as long ago as 2007 – this all-pervasive, highly affordable, heavily marketed junk food – have been long in coming. Successive governments have ducked the issues, afraid of upsetting the voters and the food industry. But with the NHS desperately short of money, it is clear that obesity-related cancers, diabetes, heart disease and strokes must be prevented because we may not be able to afford to treat them.
So the government has promised to ban junk food bogofs completely, as well as outlaw cut-price deals at supermarket checkouts, entrances and end of aisles. It will update school food standards on sugar and fibre. Ministers will also consult on a 9pm watershed for all junk food advertising on TV and online; making cafes and restaurants list the calorie content of meals on their menus; and banning the sale of high-sugar, high-caffeine energy drinks to under-18s.
And there is the problem. This is just a consultation. The 9pm advertising ban was the number one ask of many experts, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. For its president, Professor Russell Viner, this was “the big ticket item”. That, he told me, was “the thing that would make me smile and skip”.
He may yet be able to skip down the road, but the industry will fight hard. Yet Tim Rycroft, the Food and Drink Federation’s director of corporate affairs, says the whole government package causes deep disquiet. “Advertising and promotions underpin the healthy, vibrant and innovative market for food and drink that UK shoppers love,” he says. “If the government restricts our ability to advertise and promote new healthier options to shoppers, it could risk the success of the reformulation programme. Any further restrictions will have to pass stern tests around targeting and effectiveness.”
Nobody should underestimate the barely veiled threat in that. Ever since the first obesity plan in 2016, which was greeted with derision by public health experts and campaigners because it contained nothing on advertising and promotions, Public Health England has been valiantly working to cajole and bully the food industry into reformulating unhealthy foods by cutting sugar and calories. And it has had some success. The first year managed only a 2% cut in sugar against the 5% target, but PHE is still optimistic about its long-term target of a 20% reduction in sugar by 2020.
Reformulation has to be part of the answer. Hunt said at the weekend that soft drinks companies have taken about 45m kilos of sugar out of their beverages. But noticeably, that is under the very real economic pressure of the sugar tax, introduced in April.
Voluntary agreements like the former health secretary Andrew Lansley’s responsibility deal, which politely asked food and drink manufacturers to make healthier products and sell junk food and sugary drinks less aggressively got nowhere. It’s about time the government brandished a big stick. There is a huge amount to do to clamp down on junk food marketing and promote healthy food instead. The food industry can’t be allowed to use these consultations to derail this tentative progress.
Source The Guardian, June 2018