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UK Government ‘could become first in world to turn tide on obesity’

By Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor

The UK Government could become the first in the world to reverse rising obesity levels by tackling stigma and tightening rules around food sales, a coalition of charities and medics has said.

In a 10-year strategy, the Obesity Health Alliance set down its plan with a raft of measures, including much stronger promotion of healthy food and phasing out of the marketing of junk food.

It said the UK Government must lead by example in addressing the “weight bias and stigma” experienced by obese people by “reframing obesity as an issue of collective rather than personal responsibility”.

The report argued people are exposed to an “obesogenic environment” from birth, “one in which calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food is accessible, abundant, affordable and normalised and where physical activity opportunities are not built into everyday life.”

The alliance, which includes the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Diabetes UK and medical royal colleges, said successive governments have failed to tackle obesity ever since 1991, when ministers set the first target for reducing obesity rates in England to 7% (1980 levels) by 2005.

“Many strategies and policies have been announced in the intervening years and yet, 30 years later, this and all subsequent targets have been missed,” the report said.

“Today the majority of adults in England – 68% of men and 60% of women – are above a healthy weight, and over a quarter have obesity (27% of men and 29% of women), with the highest rates among the lowest socioeconomic groups.

“Progress towards the current government ambition for childhood obesity in England, set in 2018 – to halve childhood obesity and significantly reduce the gap in obesity between children from the most and least deprived areas by 2030 – seems out of reach.”

In 2014/15, the NHS spent £6.1 billion on treating obesity-related ill health and this is forecast to rise to £9.7 billion per year by 2050.

The alliance said it fully endorses Government plans to introduce a 9pm watershed on TV and a ban of paid-for advertising online for unhealthy food and drink, plus new restrictions on the promotion on unhealthy food and drinks in retail outlets and online.

But it says much more is needed over the next five years, including:

– Mandatory front-of-pack nutrient labelling.

– Addition of free sugar content on front-of-pack labels and quantity of sweeteners on back-of-pack labels.

– Calorie information on all alcoholic drinks labels.

– Introduction of regulation to mandate calorie limits on single-serve portions of high fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) products if there is a failure to reach calorie reduction targets.

– Extending the 9pm watershed on unhealthy food and drinks adverts to cinema and radio; removing outdoor advertising for unhealthy food and drinks and ending marketing and promotions related to unhealthy food and drinks in family attractions, childcare facilities and places of education.

– Extending restrictions on multi-buy promotions of unhealthy food and drink products.

– Ensuring universal breastfeeding support programmes are accessible to all families, provide children’s centres or family hubs in areas of high deprivation, and maintaining local environments that promote exercise.

– Making the NHS “size-inclusive” where feasible, with “provision of suitable equipment for people with obesity.”

– Providing greater clarity on the legal responsibility of employers to not discriminate against employees based on their weight.

– Introducing a “fiscal lever” on food and drink manufacturers to incentivise further reformulation of processed food, such as through sugar and salt reformulation taxes.

– Limiting the use of cartoons on unhealthy food and drink packaging, along with limits on using celebrities and sports stars, and ending the use of on-pack promotional offers including giveaways and competition prizes.

– Ensuring only healthier food and drink products can be associated with sports, with new restrictions on any kind of sports sponsorship of unhealthy products and brands.

– Preventing the misleading marketing of food and drinks aimed at infants and young children.

– Banning the advertising of follow-on formula milk.

– Introducing policies that cut the accessibility of unhealthy food and drink, particularly to older children, including licensing retailers or curbing the hours when products can be sold.

Professor Dame Anne Johnson, chair of the expert working group advising the alliance, said: “We reviewed the evidence across the multiple factors that influence healthy weight, and if the Government commits to bold new policies, we can turn the tide, reducing obesity and greatly improve our nation’s health.”

John Maingay, director of policy and influencing at the British Heart Foundation, said: “After years of focusing on education and awareness measures, the UK Government has started to move in the right direction with an obesity strategy which focuses on making the healthy option the easy option.

“We must now build on this with forward-thinking policies, such as placing a levy on companies to encourage them to produce healthier food.”

Kate Halliwell, chief scientific officer of the Food and Drink Federation, said they were concerned about some of the recommendations in the report, which were lacking in evidence.

“As we have stated since its mention in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy report, we do not agree that a food tax on the industry will resolve the obesity crisis. As the Chancellor rightly pointed out over the weekend, an additional tax would ultimately impact those families who are already struggling to make ends meet, by making food and drink more expensive.

“After what has been a very difficult year for the food and drink industry, including the challenges it currently faces around shortages, businesses in our sector are already operating on very tight margins, and any further costs would simply have to be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher food prices.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “As part of our obesity strategy to get the nation fit and healthy, we’ve invested £100 million in helping people move towards a healthier weight and plan to introduce mandatory calorie labelling in restaurants, cafes and takeaways.

“We are also restricting advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar being shown on TV before 9pm and online, as well as unhealthy food promotions in stores from next year.

“The new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities is launching next month which will spearhead national efforts to tackle obesity, improve mental health and promote physical activity.”

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