New bans on advertising and food promotions – together with pressure on GPs to prescribe exercise – are part of an obesity strategy for England, announced today.
Launching the strategy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson linked it to reducing risk from coronavirus and “taking pressure” off the NHS. The Department of Health and Social Care said obesity is costing the NHS six billion pounds a year.
New exercise prescription tasks for GPs are described as “separate” and are likely to be included in contract negotiations for next year. According to media reports, GPs will be expected to encourage cycling. Under the plans primary care staff will be able to train as “healthy weight coaches”.
The government promised to expand weight management services and introduce self-care apps. New laws will ban advertising of foods high in fat, sugar or salt before 9pm on television or on-line while stores will be banned from offering buy one, get one free offers on these foods.
Mr Johnson said: “If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”
Public Health England chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone said: “The environment we live in plays a significant role in tackling obesity: the information they are given to make those choices; the choices we are offered; and the influences that shape those choices. This will support individual choice and give families a fairer chance to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.”
The plans were welcomed by the British Medical Association. Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, chair of its board of science, said: “What we need now is for this strategy to be actioned as quickly as possible, with the promised expansion of NHS services delivered in full, with adequate resources and funding, to ensure that those struggling with their weight can get the support they need and deserve – both now and long after the pandemic is over.”
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “We strongly welcome reports that the government will introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising. We have a window of opportunity to make a huge difference to our children’s health with brave, evidence-based policy. We strongly encourage the government to hold its nerve and we look forward to reviewing the detail next week.”
Jacob West, from the British Heart Foundation, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp relief what we knew already, that obesity is a public health crisis that must be addressed urgently. As this stark new report confirms, people with obesity are disproportionately at risk of worse outcomes from Covid-19, while also being at greater risk of developing other serious, life-threatening medical conditions, such as heart and circulatory diseases.”
Cancer Research UK said it was a “landmark day” for the nation’s health.
Royal College of Physicians president Professor Andrew Goddard said the strategy failed to invest in expanding effective medical interventions. He said: “While the strategy isn’t as all-encompassing as we’d hoped for, it does take some significant strides forward. The moves to reduce unhealthy product promotions and action on junk food advertising are welcome and will make a real difference.
“But we know that obesity is the result of biological, genetic and social factors, and yet the strategy has not placed equal emphasis on responding to each of these. There is a risk that we once again fall into the trap of mainly focusing on individual responsibility. We’ve been down this path before and it doesn’t work.”