crapping a planned anti-obesity policy banning two-for-one junk food deals would be “unforgivable”, health campaigners have warned, after the Government delayed the measure beyond the next election.
TV doctor Chris van Tulleken branded suggestions the “light-touch” regulation would restrict consumer choice “ludicrous” following No 10’s announcement it had been shelved amid concerns about the cost-of-living crisis.
Chair of Action on Sugar Professor Graham MacGregor questioned why ministers are not instead seeking to make it easier for families to buy healthier food, and said a U-turn on the ban would be inexcusable.
Rishi Sunak announced on Friday the policy would be shelved until October 2025 – beyond the next general election, which is scheduled to take place no later than January that year.
The Prime Minister said he “firmly believe(s) in people’s right to choose” and does not want to make grocery shopping harder while food prices remain high.
The policy, which formed part of the anti-obesity strategy, had already been pushed back to October 2023 which sparked speculation that it was likely to be dropped completely.
The Government has now pushed it back again as it continues to review the impact it would have on shoppers and businesses.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr van Tulleken said: “It speaks to the hold that the food industry has over this Government. The idea that this very light-touch regulation would restrict choice is ludicrous.
“The Government is terrified of being a nanny state. We live in a nanny state. The nannying is done by a very small number of transnational food corporations that extraordinarily restrict people’s choices.
“We know that for many people, to eat a healthy diet… It’s simply unaffordable.”
Dr van Tulleken has warned Britain is living in a childhood obesity “emergency” with children not only overweight but malnourished.
“British children are not just some of the heaviest in the world, they’re also stunted. Obesity goes hand in hand with malnutrition,” he told the show.
“Successive governments have really done absolutely nothing to interrupt its process.”
Prof MacGregor said: “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.”
His concerns were echoed by Katharine Jenner, director of Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), who urged the Government to “follow the evidence”.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
Announcing the delay on Friday, the Prime Minister said: “I firmly believe in 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 for Government to restrict the options available to consumers on their weekly shop.
“It is right that we consider carefully the impact on consumers and businesses, while ensuring we’re striking the balance with our important mission to reduce obesity and help people live healthier lives.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay insisted ministers “remain committed to cutting waiting lists by tackling obesity” despite the latest deferral, including by launching pilots for anti-obesity drugs.