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The long-lasting effects of COVID-19 on policy making will be experienced for many years. However, one of the less discussed policy shifts is Johnson’s campaign against obesity. Does it represent a paradigm shift or is Johnson merely tinkering with the system? 

It has been known for decades that obesity increases the risk of a variety of health conditions putting pressure on the NHS that amounts to £6 billion a year. Moreover, aside from increased cardiovascular, cancer and diabetes risk, a 2017 meta-analysis shows that a higher BMI is consistently associated with depression. This may be a result of stigma or a direct influence of an improperly balanced diet but nevertheless puts further pressure on struggling mental health services. 

The Government itself states that the urgency stems from evidence linking obesity to an increased risk of hospitalisation and death from COVID-19. It is also clear that being overweight is something Johnson attributes to his hospitalisation.  The new raft of measures encompasses a ban on TV and online adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm; an end to ‘buy one get one free’ deals on unhealthy foods; mandatory calorie displays for large businesses; and, a new campaign to help people become more active and adopt healthier eating habits

As expected, the response from industry has been negative. But this is not due to an unreasonable assessment; the Advertising Association highlights that one of the Government’s own impact papers indicates that the ban on adverts would only remove, on average, 1.7 calories per day from children’s diets

Similarly, the British Dietetic Association and The British Nutrition Foundation both responded to the reforms welcoming the announcement but urging the Government to do more due to the scale of the problem. Both organisations highlight socio-economic inequalities and the obesogenic environment as major drivers of obesity. While the steps aim to address some aspects of the obesogenic environment, they nevertheless do not transform the ease of inactivity which so defines modern Britain, with survey data suggesting up to 37% of Brits never exercise and only 13% exercise regularly, and neither does it change the highly ingrained eating habits of tens of millions of British citizens. 

Appropriately addressing the obesity crisis will require much more than a few token policies. Indeed, it will require a more comprehensive shift driven by the recommendations of the dietetic workforce and incorporating many different policy insights. A government survey has suggested that only 28% of adults eat the minimum five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to maintain a reasonable level of health, and another report indicates that most people in the UK are staggeringly consuming three times the recommended daily sugar intake. This situation is unsustainable. 

The measures are collectively a step in the right direction as more support for people who want to lose weight is now available through the ‘Better Health’ campaign led by Public Health England. Nevertheless, a colossal challenge requires proportionately large changes and the Government’s new campaign is wholly inadequate. The campaign is not fully in sync with the opinions of industry experts and, therefore, stronger communication networks are necessary between them and Government. The public spending on the campaign must effectively translate into real and proportionate reductions in obesity- and this will only be possible when policy is informed by the best evidence on its causes.   

The Government needs to invest much greater resources into promoting the ‘five-a-day’ campaign as the high dietary fibre content of fruits and vegetables increases satiety and therefore their higher consumption will predispose people towards consuming less calories. Equally, data from Mexico suggests that the sugar tax is effective, and therefore disincentivising highly processed foods through ‘sin-taxes’ should also constitute a part of government policy, and not be limited to sugar. 

The ‘Eat Out to Help Out Scheme’ revealed the lack of true commitment to reduce the human obesogenic environment. Growing evidence indicates the complex network of factors beyond personal decisions driving dietary choices. Therefore, the Government must commit itself to a more substantial policy shift recognising these external influences. The cultural decline of tobacco serves as a template, and a similar effect on unhealthy eating habits will require greater public education and awareness, industry innovation, soft and hard regulation, and consumer-driven change. In other words, a monumental task that will most importantly require a long-term partnership between experts in government and those outside it, informing its decisions with the very best evidence. Cultural change is never easy, and complacency will only stall progress.

Sebastian is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Number 10]