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Government could ban fast food adverts as part of obesity strategy

The government has announced its new obesity strategy, partly pushed by the impact of obesity on COVID-19 mortality rates. These new proposals would ban TV and online adverts for food that is high in fat, sugar or salt before 9pm, end 'buy-one-get-one-free' promotions for unhealthy food, improve calorie and nutrition labelling, and expand NHS services on weight loss. 

Plans on TV and online adverts have received intense attention. Analysis published by Cancer Research UK from September 2019 shows that almost half (47.6%) of all food adverts shown over the month on ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky1 were for products high in fat, sugar and salt. This rises to almost 60% during the 6pm to 9pm slot – the time slot where children’s viewing peaks. 

The government will hold a new short consultation on whether the ban on online adverts for unhealthy foods should apply at all times of day.

New legislation is also expected to restrict food promotions for unhealthy food. There will also be a ban on these items being placed in prominent locations in stores, such as at checkouts and entrances, and online.

In the UK we spend more buying food products on promotion than any other European country and a survey from 2018 shows that around 43% of all food and drink products located in prominent areas were for sugary foods and drinks, compared to just 1% for healthy items. Shops will be encouraged to promote healthier choices and offer more discounts on food like fruit and vegetables. 

The government has also announced an expansion of NHS services, offering more weight management services. This will include more self-care apps and online tools for people with obesity-related conditions and accelerating the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme. From next year doctors will be offered incentives to ensure people living with obesity is given support for weight loss and primary care staff will also have the opportunity to become ‘healthy weight coaches’ though training delivered by Public Health England. Separately, GPs will also be encouraged to prescribe exercise and more social activities to help people keep fit

Obesity is one of the biggest health crises the country faces. Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity – and 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6 billion a year.

Living with excess weight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, with risk growing substantially as body mass index (BMI) increases. Nearly 8% of critically ill patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population.

Rather than focusing primarily on childhood obesity, the strategy represents a new focus on empowering adults to lose weight as well.

This plan is being launched alongside an exciting new ‘Better Health’ campaign, led by Public Health England (PHE), which will call on people to embrace a healthier lifestyle and to lose weight if they need to, supported by a range of evidence-based tools and apps providing advice on how to reduce the waistline.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said:

Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier.

If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said:

Everyone knows how hard losing weight can be so we are taking bold action to help everyone who needs it. When you’re shopping for your family or out with friends, it’s only fair that you are given the right information about the food you’re eating to help people to make good decisions.

To help support people we need to reduce unhelpful influences like promotions and adverts that affect what you buy and what you eat. Taken together, supported by an inspiring campaign and new smart tools, will get the country eating healthily and losing the pounds.

We know obesity increases the risk of serious illness and death from coronavirus - so it’s vital we take action on obesity to protect the NHS and improve our nation’s health.

Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England, said:

These plans are ambitious and rightly so. Tackling obesity will help prevent serious illness and save lives.

The main reason we put on weight is because of what we eat and drink, but being more active is important too. Making healthier choices easier and fairer for everyone, and ensuring the right support is there for those who need it, is critical in tackling obesity.

These bold measures will help us tip the scales on obesity. The argument for action is the clearest it’s ever been.

Overconsumption of calories is one of the most significant contributing factors in becoming overweight. Figures show many adults are consuming 200 to 300 extra calories a day above recommended daily guidelines with children who are already overweight are consuming up to 500 calories more than they need every day.

Parts of this current strategy have been suggested by previous governments. Both David Cameron and Theresa May began consultations on banning fast food TV adverts and improving labelling before being replaced as Prime Minister. In both cases, the proposals were initially shelved by their successor. 

Alex Norris MP, Labour’s Shadow Health and Social Care Minister, said:

We’ve had big promises before from Tory ministers on banning junk food advertising only for measures to be kicked into the long grass of consultation.

“But an effective obesity strategy needs action, not consultation.  The Tories have pared public health to the bone and people are paying the price for ten years of this complacency.

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