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The Government's new obesity strategy falls short leaving consumers and businesses exposed


United Kingdom

The Government released its new strategy for tackling the country's obesity problem, with almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England being overweight or living with obesity[1]

It has been known for some time that people who are overweight or obese are at higher risk of serious illnesses and this is now the Government's third attempt in the last few years to try and address the issue. The urgency of this current response comes as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted that people who are overweight or living with obesity are at increased risk of dying from COVID-19.

The strategy aims to encourage people to get fitter and live a healthier lifestyle, but has the Government got its approach and timing right?

The Strategy

Alongside a new "Better Health" campaign to be led by Public Health England and expanding NHS weight management services, the Government has introduced a series of measures, which largely affect food and beverage companies. The proposed measures include:

  • 9pm watershed controls – banning television and online adverts before 9pm for foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt ("HFSS Foods"). Plus consideration of whether the online ban should be applied at all times of the day.
  • Restricting volume promotions – banning volume offers for HFSS Foods, such as "buy one get one free".
  • Controls over in-store and online placement of products – banning the placement of HFSS Foods in prominent locations in stores, such as at checkouts and entrances, and online.
  • Menu calorie labelling – requiring large restaurants, cafes and takeaways to include calories on menus to help people make healthier choices when eating out.
  • Alcohol "liquid calories" - a new consultation on calorie labelling for alcoholic drinks.
  • Front of pack nutrition labelling - a consultation on the current "traffic light" labelling and whether front of pack nutrition labelling has a greater impact on consumer choices.

Industry reaction

The strategy has naturally been welcomed by long time campaigners for action against obesity. Many have been calling for a number of these measures for years. However, the reaction from other parts of the industry is not as buoyant.

Both the Association of UK Dietitians (BDA) and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) have welcomed the launch of the new strategy, but criticised the lack of emphasis on biological, genetic, health, psychological, environmental and social factors. Without consideration of these factors, the "strategy is likely simply to provide sticking plaster remedies" BDA[2].

However, critics within the advertising industry have also identified a number of flaws in the strategy. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA)[3], the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA)[4] and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB)[5] have all issued strong statements expressing their deep disappoint in the strategy and proposals. These industry bodies understand and support the issue of tackling obesity. Their criticism is not intended to stand in the way of taking significant strides in tackling the problem, but to highlight that certain measures do not align with evidence and do not adequately help to reduce the obesity problem. They raise a number of valid points:

  • evidence has been disregarded by the Government;
  • a pre-9pm TV ad ban would reduce children’s calorie consumption by only 1.7 calories a day;
  • a proposed ban on HFSS Food ads online does not recognise the ability to target ads away from certain groups;
  • the direct link between food marketing and obesity is difficult to measure and quantify because obesity is a condition with multiple factors. This is in line with the comments made by the BDA and RCP;
  • there has been a failure to acknowledge the current rules for advertising of HFSS Foods – "The current rules on advertising are comprehensive, effective, evidence-based and proportionate and apply wherever you may see ads, whether on TV, in the street or on public transport. They apply online and in social media...Advertising exposure to HFSS adverts have reduced by 70% in the past decade, as obesity rates have steadily risen." IPA
  • the proposed measures will have a grave impact on food and beverage manufacturers, small businesses, retailers, commercial broadcasters, online publishers and consumers, at a time when the country is already struggling from the fall out of COVID-19:
    • small businesses who rely on social media advertising will find it harder and more expensive to advertise;
    • the measures fly in the face of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme;
    • removal of volume promotions will cost consumers more at the checkout, having a particular impact on disadvantaged families;  
    • the measures take away valuable advertising revenue from commercial broadcasters and online publishers; and
    • the measures do not support businesses and put jobs at risk in a number of industries.

What do food & beverage companies need to know?

Various bodies like IPA, ISBA and IAB will be considering the measures further and may be consulting with their members on the proposed measures and the new consultations proposed under the strategy – the total online ban on HFSS Food adverts; calorie labelling for alcoholic drinks; and front of pack nutrition labelling.  Other bodies like BDA and RCP will also be reinforcing the need to look at the wider issues that contribute to obesity and other treatment options that available.

There is still time to have your voice heard on various issues.

If you have any questions or require any help in navigating this area, feel free to get in touch with Sonal Patel Oliva or David Bond.

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