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The government mustn't delay action on restrictions to junk food advertising

Jack Doughty, Senior Policy Officer at Diabetes UK, reacts to the government’s announcement that it is delaying key policies on junk food advertising and promotions from its Obesity Strategy.

The government has announced it will be delaying the introduction of new restrictions on promotions and advertising of unhealthy food and drink by a year. A year’s delay at this point in time puts these policies under serious threat of not happening at all. This comes after cuts to weight management services were announced last month. These cuts and delays mark a huge backtrack on key government pledges on obesity. It looks more and more unlikely that we’ll achieve the aim of halving childhood obesity by 2030.  

Living with overweight and obesity is one of the main risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes. During the pandemic, childhood obesity levels saw their fastest rise on record, with children living in the most deprived areas more than twice as likely to be living with obesity than children from the least deprived. Linked to this, we are seeing a worrying rise in type 2 diabetes in children, which carries greater risks than receiving a diagnosis in adulthood. To reverse this trend, it is essential for the government to support people to live healthier lives. It must do this by addressing problems that affect our whole society, like the food environment that people are exposed to.  

Junk food advertising restriction delay puts government commitments under threat 

In 2020, the government committed to a range of actions as part of an Obesity Strategy to tackle the rising rate of obesity across the country. These measures include: 

  • new restrictions on junk food advertising  

  • new restrictions on the promotions and placement of junk food in supermarkets 

  • working to expand weight management services 

  • calorie labelling on menus to help people to make healthier choices.  

These policies demonstrate an acknowledgement that reducing obesity levels is not simply a matter of changing individual behaviours. We also need to address an unhealthy food environment.  

In recent weeks we’ve heard repeated government reassurances that they were ‘absolutely committed’ to the measures within the Obesity Strategy. We are therefore extremely disappointed to hear that these important policies are now under threat of not being put into practice due to the delay. 

Cost of living arguments don't add up 

The government is citing the current cost of living crisis for this delay, but the evidence does not support this. Evidence shows that promotions by volume, like multibuy offers, can increase the amount of food and drink a household purchases by 22%. Rather than save people money, these offers encourage more spending on unhealthy products, which is why these restrictions should be implemented as part of a range of measures needed to create healthier food environments and address health inequalities.  

As well as going back on measures to prevent obesity, the government also appears to be deprioritising treatment of obesity. We were disappointed to see that recently introduced additional funding for tier 2 weight management services, which are services provided in the community to help people lose weight through diet, exercise and lifestyle advice, is to be withdrawn this year. This has been reported as £100m worth of cuts for the NHS and local authorities that was only introduced a year ago.  

Bold action needed  

Last year, the government commissioned the independent National Food Strategy to set out a range of recommendations on how the government could build on the Obesity Strategy and further address the obesity crisis. The response from the government is due shortly and we are extremely concerned about the implications of the latest delays and cuts for that announcement. 

We are urging the government not to backtrack or further delay its commitments and then to go further to make the environment we live in healthier. We want to see: 

  • healthier food made more accessible for all 

  • more done to enable people to have active lives 

  • financial measures from the government to reduce the amount of unhealthy food we are exposed to.

We will only see a reduction in obesity if bold measures are taken to tackle inequality and the unhealthy food environment. The government must reconsider these delays and prove that they are truly committed to levelling up the country’s health. 

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