If, as the much-quoted Harold Wilson comment goes, “a week is a long time in politics” then a year is practically a lifetime. And while government policy positions can radically change, over a year, a week or as in as little as three hours, turning policy announcements into actual legislation can take a lot longer.
So, exactly one year on from the Government’s landmark Tackling Obesity strategy, it’s a pleasant surprise that not only has the Government stood firm on its commitment to “empowering adults and children to live healthier lives” but is also making significant progress in bringing in the legislation needed to address some of the environmental drivers of obesity.
By the end of October 2022, new restrictions on how some unhealthy foods can be promoted by retailers (both in shops and online) will be in place. This will mean no more sweets at checkouts or cakes at aisle ends and multi-buy offers will be on healthier products only. If we are eating in large chains of restaurants, information about the calorie content of our meals will be shown on menus.
The Government has also paved the way for changes to TV and online advertising to be in place by the end of year – ending the domination of fast-food advertising around prime-time TV and limiting the way unhealthy food and drinks can be marketed online.
Progress has also been made on providing more support to people living with overweight and obesity, with some additional funding provided to expand treatment services.
So far, so good. These are evidence-backed policies that have the potential to significantly change our food environment, making it easier for everyone to be healthy and are a sign of the Government’s commitment to improving population health. But they are not law yet and political efforts will needed to ensure they pass through Parliament without being weakened.
Is this enough?
Will this be enough to ‘tackle obesity’? No, firstly because obesity isn’t an opponent thundering towards the goal that needs to be intercepted. Tackling implies a problem that needs to be overcome or fought and combative language can perpetuate the weight stigma that is ever present in our society – damaging to people who are living with obesity and driving the misconception that weight is solely an issue of personal responsibility that acts as a barrier to government action to improve public health.
Secondly because there are multiple drivers of obesity – many of which are outside of an individual’s control – and we need comprehensive and sustained action from government to address these. Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, published early this month, nimbly explained the ‘junk food cycle’ and proposed incentivising food manufacturers to produce healthier foods with a reformulation tax on the industry, along with counter measures to ensure healthy food is affordable for families in poverty.
We also need further action to address other powerful forms of marketing that influence our dietary habits -such as sports sponsorship by unhealthy brands (called out publicly by Ronaldo recently) and the use of child-friendly characters on packaging of sugary and high fat foods. We need to do more to ensure all children get the best start in life, setting them off on a healthy growth trajectory and ensuring families are well supported. We need to ensure equitable access to a range of evidence-based treatment and support services to help people manage their weight and improve training of professionals to make sure this support is always provided in a compassionate and helpful way.
Blue-print for change
In September, the Obesity Health Alliance will publish a Healthy Weight Strategy. Developed with the input of a range of academic, policy and clinical experts and supported by the SPECTRUM consortium, it will set out the evidence-informed policies that will improve our health and give us the best chance of starting to reduce the impact of diseases linked to obesity.
Improving health and preventing and addressing obesity at a population level will take time. So more than anything we need a commitment to staying on this path of evidence-based policy. A commitment to further wide-ranging action and a comprehensive approach to evaluation that means we can learn as we go and apply that learning to refine and improve policies. And in a years’ time, we hope to be continuing to celebrate yet more policies that ‘tackle’ the factors that increase the risk of obesity, helping everyone to be healthier.