Health campaigners call on UK government to take urgent obesity action amid pandemic

Health campaign groups including Action On Sugar and Action on Salt, have joined with 47 other organisations in calling on the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson to urgently implement all remaining chapters of the government’s childhood obesity plan. Neill Barston reports.

The collective plea for enacting decisions on the issue comes amid an emerging medical studies during the present pandemic crisis that have reportedly indicated that being clinically overweight is a contributory risk factor in  coronavirus patients. This was underlined by NHS figures in May that showed a quarter of coronavirus patients who had died had also been suffering from type 2 diabetes.

Consequently, ahead of expected announcements from the government tackling obesity – which are reportedly to include a ban on eye-catching confectionery promotions in supermarkets, campaigners are seeking urgent action to fulfil major promised plans that formed  part of an evidence-based package in chapters one, two and three of the Government’s childhood obesity prevention plan. This includes a ‘vital’ no showing of junk food ads before 9pm – which according to national newspaper reports, the Prime Minister (pictured outside 10 Downing Street in London), may not be willing to recommend, despite noting the severe impact of the pandemic following his own hospitalisation from coronavirus.

As Action on Sugar, which has campaigned for a mandatory sugar tax on confectionery in light of the industry’s failure to reach government-backed Public Health England target of manufacturers delivering 20% cuts in sugar within product ranges by this year, the group has set out a 2020 traffic light scorecard for remaining areas of focus that require urgent focus.

This analyses the government’s commitment against progress of the three chapters of the childhood obesity plan. The group said it was “evident that many of the recommendations aimed at both reducing inequalities and improving the lives of both children and adults living with obesity, such as calorie reduction and taxation of unhealthy foods, have disappointingly been side lined and are effectively ‘stuck at the traffic lights’.”

However, in Action on Sugar’s view, despite ‘sources’ indicating that many of these core recommendations are now being reconsidered as part of the government’s new obesity strategy (Chapter 4) – a plan that excludes restrictions on junk food marketing and advertising across all media platforms – including live TV, TV on demand, radio, online, social media, apps, in-game, cinema, digital outdoor advertising such as billboards – will not deliver the necessary impact on public health, the experts warn. As the group notes, treating and preventing obesity requires a raft of measures – singular actions cannot solve the problem and allow far too many loopholes.

Food and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) should not be permitted to advertise before 9pm. Following a Government consultation which closed in June 2019 and is yet to be implemented, strong, albeit cautious, evidence was presented on the need to restrict junk food advertising. The consultation demonstrated that this policy will:

● Likely to benefit adults as well as children due to reduced exposure and pester power (which significantly influences purchasing decisions)

● Have a mutual impact for BAME communities (as policy does not differentiate race)

● Have an increased benefit for the more socially deprived

● Encourage reformulation by the food and drink industry, and improve nutritional quality of their foods, so that their products become healthy enough to advertise before 9pm

Commenting on the situation, Mhairi Brown, policy and public affairs manager at Action on Sugar and Salt, said: “In order for the Prime Minister’s new obesity plan to be effective and change the health trajectory of future generations, a robust and joined up policy package is required rather than a pick and mix of measures which allow loopholes to be exploited. With inequalities once again brought to the forefront as a result of COVID-19, Mr Johnson has a golden opportunity to ensure that lessons learned during the pandemic are translated to equitable access to health for all.”

Furthermore, Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine and Chair of Action on Sugar and Salt, added that it was now the  ‘government’s golden opportunity’ to fully implement an obesity plan here in the UK – four years after Chapter 1 was officially published.

He said: “Since that time, we’ve seen far more lengthy consultation processes rather than direct action which now must change. If we can address obesity and care for the health of our population, we will become more resistant to life threatening diseases like COVID-19 in the future.”

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