Abandoning policies to tackle obesity will be “dangerous to public health” and lead to people eating even more unhealthy food, a senior doctor and leading campaigner has warned.
“Assuming the reports are correct, then I think it’s a national scandal that they’re going to let the food industry let more people become obese.
“Surely the government has a duty to look after its population? Politicians are meant to be our servants. It’s not their job to prioritize the profits of the food industry,” said Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular health at the Wolfson Institute of Population Health and Barts in London.
“Repealing anti-obesity measures, if this is the case, would be dangerous to public health.”
MacGregor, who is also the chairman of the Action on Sugar campaign, was responding to the Guardian’s revelation that ministers have pushed for a review of strategies either already in use or to be implemented to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis.
Whitehall sources say Liz Truss is prepared to abandon all existing policies, including bans on buy-one-get-one-free multi-purchase offers, displays of sweets at supermarket checkouts and junk food adverts shown on TV before from 21:00.
It is understood the government’s “internal obesity policy review” was ordered by the Treasury but is being undertaken by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). DHSC believes it needs to monitor the impact of restricting the promotion of junk food in light of the rising cost of living. Food inflation is running at 13.1%, new data showed on Wednesday.
Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “Once again the interests of big business have dangerously trumped the interests of the man in the street. Although £6 billion may be the annual cost of treating obesity, the total cost to the nation of obesity and the serious medical conditions it causes is £58 billion a year. This is an obscene cost to be borne by the taxpayer.”
Obesity contributes to at least 64,000 deaths a year in England, said William Roberts, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health. In light of this, “the news that the obesity strategy is under review is concerning and at odds with support across industry and the public,” he said.
“Far from being a left-behind state, this is about the Government making a sensible financial investment in the health and wealth of our nation and the NHS for decades to come,” he added.
But the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank, welcomed the revision. “Abolishing policies that make food and drink more expensive during a cost of living crisis is unthinkable,” said Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle finance. “We are long overdue a prime minister who puts the interests of consumers above the interests of state lobbyists. Let’s hope Liz Truss is that prime minister.”
Beat, a charity which helps people with eating disorders, also welcomed the review, particularly as it opposes the display of calorie counters on menus in cafes, takeaways and restaurants, which became mandatory last April.
“We are extremely concerned about the effect some of the Government’s initiatives are having on the 1.25 million people in the UK with eating disorders, notably putting calories on menus, and unfortunately we have seen the impact of these damaging policies through the people we support. For example, we know that calories on menus can exacerbate eating disorder thoughts and behaviors,” said Tom Quinn, Beat’s director of external affairs.
“The Government’s evidence base for implementing many parts of the obesity strategy is weak and we at Beat would welcome the opportunity to contribute to the review of the strategy,” he added.
Public health and medical groups fear the “in-house” nature of the review may mean they cannot make representations. The Guardian has asked the DHSC to clarify whether outside organizations will be able to share their views and evidence with officials.