Today, the UK Government launched a new strategy to tackle obesity.
A raft of measures – including restricting junk food marketing on TV and online, and promotions in-store – have been announced to help people get healthy, protect themselves against COVID-19 and protect the NHS. Some of these will apply UK-wide, and others just to England.
It’s been described as a ‘landmark day’ for the nation’s health, after years of campaigning by Cancer Research UK, our supporters, Obesity Health Alliance and the wider public health community.
Why is this important for cancer?
Overweight and obesity is the second biggest cause of cancer in the UK.
Obesity is a complex issue with many causes, but one of the biggest influences is the world we live in. The less healthy choice has become the easier, cheaper choice for the consumer, while advertising and marketing have become more sophisticated – creating an ‘obesogenic environment’.
Because of this, reducing obesity levels requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the environmental causes, improves availability of healthy options, empowers people to make and maintain healthier habits, and provides evidence-based treatment to those who need it.
We have always maintained that such an approach is achievable, provided there is the political will to enact the necessary policies. Successive governments have taken steps in the right direction, but until now the aspiration for the UK to be ‘world-leading’ has remained just that.
The size of the prize is significant. According to our estimates, around 1.3 million fewer children and teenagers in the UK would be overweight or obese if we matched the lowest overweight and obesity prevalence for these age groups in Europe.
The latest measures
One of the headline measures is a ban on TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm, something we’ve been campaigning on for many years.
Endless adverts and promotions for junk food give us cravings and normalise bad diets. And young people, in particular, find this marketing pervasive. Over 40% feel “under pressure” by such marketing, according to a 2018 report.
Read more: Our evidence on junk food marketing and childhood obesity
And these little pressures add up. Excess weight is often caused by consuming as little as 47-73 excess calories daily. And food marketing could lead to 50 extra calories daily, which is why we’re thrilled that the Government has announced a TV watershed and online restrictions.
This measure will also play an important role in helping to reduce health inequalities, as young people from more deprived backgrounds in UK are also more likely to be obese, consume a range of less healthy products and be exposed to junk food adverts.
Encouragingly the new measures will also push industry to focus on promoting healthier products in their place. And we know they can do it: our research found that most brands advertising unhealthy food and drink before 9pm made a healthier product they could advertise instead. The success of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy in driving reformulation also shows what is possible when brands and retailers are incentivised to do that too.
It may seem like a small change to some, but the 9pm watershed alone could lead to 160,000 healthier children in UK and a £7.4bn benefit to society.
That’s a big incentive to hold the government to this commitment, and it’s supported by 74% of the public.
It’s not over yet
The Government will hold a consultation later this year on how to introduce a total advertising ban on foods high in fat, sugar or salt online. Their intention is to implement both TV and online measures at the same time, by the end of 2022 at the latest.
But it isn’t quite a done deal. We know there will be a big push back from the advertising industry, but the evidence is strong. We need to maintain public and parliamentary pressure to make sure these measures don’t get watered down or forgotten.
The same is true for many of the other measures the Government announced as part of its obesity plan. In particular, there is work to ensure that important legislation is passed to restrict the promotion of less healthy food and drink, such as through ‘buy one get one free’ offers. These offers encourage people to spend more and consume more foods high in fat, salt or sugar than they otherwise would have.
We’ll also been keeping up pressure for these items to be removed from prominent locations in stores, such as at checkouts and entrances, and online.
Initiatives to help people find healthier options are also welcome additions and we look forward to them being implemented. From front-of-pack ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling, to calorie labelling for food sold in restaurants and takeaways, to alcohol calorie labelling – these measures will help make it easier for people to identify healthier food and drink.
The Government’s pledge to expand weight management services available through the NHS is also positive. As well as preventing future obesity, we need to support people to lose weight too. Though we hope to hear more on how local authorities will be provided with sustainable public health funding that ensures important public health and preventative services, including effective weight management services, are available to those who need them.
While there’s still a long way to go, this is a huge step forward from the Government and comes after years of campaigning from our supporters, e-campaigners and ambassadors, who have helped us make the case so effectively.
Together we have positively changed the obesity policy landscape in the UK, and, if delivered, that should have a positive and lasting impact on cancers related to excess weight in years to come.
Malcolm Clark is cancer prevention policy manager at Cancer Research UK
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