Government delay on legislation restricting HFSS product promotions sparks health concerns

A decision by the UK government to delay introducing restrictions on placement of high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) ranges, including confectionery, has sparked obesity concerns from health campaigners, writes Neill Barston.

Plans had been put forward to introduce national legislation targeting medium and larger-sized stores on where they can display a number of popular sweets, snacks and wider food items, as well as controlling specific online promotions, that were due to come into force this October.

However, following issues raised by organisations including the Food and Drink Federation over the potential negative impact of measures including a ban on television advertising of such products before 9pm, the government has said it will push back its legislation plans by a year. It cited the cost of living crisis that has seen retail food prices spiral, as its core reason.

The restrictions had targeted the placement of multi-buy offers – which routinely apply to confectionery, sweets and snacks ranges, with the results of the government’s consultation carried out in 2019 indicating a shift towards promotions for more healthier food options.

As previously reported, according to industry experts Action on Sugar, and the Obesity Health Alliance (made up of over 40 health charities, medical royal colleges and industry observers), urgent intervention amid fast-rising rates of child obesity is required at national level to tackle the issue.

The organisations claimed research has shown that reducing sugar consumption to recommended intakes could save the NHS £500 million annually, prevent 4,100 premature deaths and avert approximately 200,000 cases of tooth decay. It highlighted interim studies showing that across the food sector, cuts in sugar levels were only around 3% across category segments – with voluntary industry efforts to cut sugar within the past five years yielding even less successful results (figures from Public Health England in 2020 had shown chocolate had reduced sugar levels by just 0.4% between 2015-2019.

In the wake of the government’s announcement of further delays to legislation, Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, believed that the Prime Minister should be taking urgent action, given that he had previously recognised the scale of obesity problems in the UK – which studies have shown has remained a prominent issue amid the pandemic.

He said: “Boris Johnson could have left a legacy of being the first Prime Minister to address obesity in a meaningful way, particularly in restricting advertising and promotion of unhealthy food which were his flagship policies. Instead, he has given in to his own MPs, and an aggressive food industry, who – ironically – were starting to comply with these new policies.

“This completely contradicts the Government’s levelling up ambitions. It will also massively impact the NHS and the nation’s health, which will suffer the consequences and escalating cost of treating obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and tooth decay – all linked to our very high and unnecessary sugar, salt and saturated fat intakes, that the food industry is entirely responsible for.”

Industry response

In recent months, the UK’s Food and Drink Federation said that it broadly welcomed measures to combat obesity, though it stressed that it would not support “poorly evidenced, ineffective or unworkable policies,” and welcomed the delay to legislation.

The organisation said that it was concerned the government’s consultation, along with others that emanate from the Childhood Obesity Plan Chapter 2, had included pre-determined outcomes. It believed a 9pm watershed for TV and restrictions surrounding internet ads would be particularly challenging for the industry to comply with.

On news of the delay to the legislation, its chief scientific officer, Kate Halliwell, said: “We welcome the UK Government’s pragmatism during the cost of living crisis. At a time when both families and our manufacturers are struggling with high inflation, it makes sense to delay the restrictions on volume promotions for everyday food and drink products, including breakfast cereals, ready meals and yoghurts, as it risked further stretching already pressed household budgets.

“We also welcome the delay to the start of advertising restrictions, given the time it will take our industry to prepare for the change in law.”

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