UK government ban delays on multi-buy packs greeted with major concern from health campaigners

A UK government decision to further push back its childhood obesity strategy by an additional two years in banning ‘two for one’ promotional deals on product ranges including confectionery and snacks has drawn key concerns raised from national health campaigners and charities, reports Neill Barston.

The strategy from the Department of Health and Social Care were put forward in response to an obesity crisis, targeting high sugar and salt content categories during former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s time in office, and were slated to be in place by last autumn, yet were subsequently delayed due to ‘unprecedented conditions’ to this October.

However, the government has confirmed it is now to set back its flagship policy implementation by a further two years until 2025 amid stubbornly high levels of food inflation, which has seen many categories, including within confectionery, rise 20% in cost within the past year.

The latest major decision to delay in implementing the scheme has split opinion between retailers and health bodies campaigning for greater progress. Notably, the Association of Convenience Stores, welcomed the additional delay, with the policy now not set to be pursued until after the next English general election due to be held at the latest in January 2025.

Significantly, the National Obesity Forum has previously highlighted the annual national costs of directly treating weight issues within the region stands at £6billion – though the wider cost in related treatments remains reportedly far higher, averaging a staggering £58billion in NHS funding, with two thirds of Brits reportedly now considered to be obese. According to UK government figures last year, there were considerable variations in the level of childhood obesity – with 13% of children considered overweight in more affluent areas, compared to 31% in more economically deprived locations.

Previous attempts from the now dissolved government-backed Public Health England, which had an annual operating budget of £300 million, the organisation’s attempts to institute a voluntary scheme of 20% sugar reduction in food ranges including confectionery, snacks and bakery ranges between 2017-2020 failed to bring down levels within the category – with some segments including chocolate ranges, actually seeing their sugar content percentages actually marginally increase during the period. This has contrasted with the success of the ‘sugar tax’ on the drinks sector, which has had legally enforced standards and seen a significant positive impact on sugar reduction during a similar time-frame.

Notably, latest analysis from the Food and Drink Federation has found that the present cost of living crisis has resulted in lower sales for supermarket retailers, as shoppers resorted to physically buying less in response to the sharp increase in prices over the past year, as ingredients costs soared amid the ongoing war in Ukraine impacting supply chains, as well as key factors including Brexit-related import/export costs rising and further negatively affecting retailers’ prices.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended the move to delay its strategy. He said: “I firmly believe it is people’s right to choose – and at a time when household budgets are under continuing pressure from the global rise in food prices, it is not fair that the government to restrict the options available to consumers in their weekly shop.

“It is right that we consider carefully the impact on consumers and businesses, while ensuring we are striking the balance with our important mission to reduce obesity and help people live healthier lives.”

In response, professor Graham MacGregor – Chair of Action on Sugar and Acton on Salts, asserted that such a strategy was in fact making the situation worse, forcing people to spend more than they intended through multi-packs. He commented: “Scrapping the already delayed multi-buy price promotions policy, which is part of the Government’s own evidence-based childhood obesity strategy, would be unforgivable – especially given two thirds of adults are living with overweight or obesity and putting real pressure on the NHS. The Government’s own data shows these promotions cause people to spend 20% more than they intended, so why would the Government not want to address this and make it easier for families to buy healthier food instead? Otherwise it will exacerbate the already widening health inequalities by making healthier nutritious food less accessible to those who need it most.”

Similarly, Katharine Jenner, Director of Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) called on the government to urgently revise its latest move to place the issue on a backburner, given the scale of significant costs to the NHS, which in turn negatively impacted on the economy.

She said: “We strongly urge the government to follow the evidence and allow the incoming (and already delayed) multi-buy price promotions restrictions to come into force in October 2023 as planned rather than October 2025. Without doubt, multi-buy price promotions do not save people money. Instead, they encourage people to impulsively buy more unhealthy food, rather than make savings from food already on their shopping list. If ministers are serious about their ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, then this multi-buy price promotions policy, which is an important part of the Government’s evidence-based childhood obesity strategy, is vital. Otherwise, excess weight will continue to drive unacceptable inequalities in health outcomes whilst costing the NHS a staggering £6.5 billion annually on diet-related ill-health – piling pressure on the NHS and driving down economic productivity.”



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