Britain’s new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has a lot to do at this time of economic uncertainty in the UK. But prioritizing the nation’s health and taking action against poor diet and unhealthy body weight must be high on his agenda.
Stick to the existing and the planned anti-obesity legislation will not only benefit people’s health, but will also boost the UK economy. Healthier diets keep people at workwhich improves productivity in the workplace and helps cut millions of pounds of public expenditure for the NHS.
In September 2022, the government of Liz Truss ordered a review of the whole obesity strategy for England. This review included the possibility of removing the tax on sugar-sweetened beverage manufacturers (which turned out to be successful reduce the amount of sugar households buy) and ending legislation to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods online, on TV before 9 p.m. and in retail outlets.
Despite Truss’ lack of “nanny status” speech, legislation came into force on October 1, 2022, limiting how retailers promote unhealthy foods. Shops across England are no longer allowed to place unhealthy food in conspicuous places, such as entrances, checkouts and at the end of aisles.
It’s a watered down version of the comprehensive legislation that also bans multi-purchase promotions, such as “buy one, get one free”, on unhealthy foods. Boris Johnson’s government has intentionally delayed this until October 2023 to help families cope with rising food costs. Unfortunately, evidence shows that these types of promotions increase the amount of unhealthy foods people buy and eat.
A good start
Although watered down, the legislation is a good start to creating store layouts that encourage people to make healthier choices.
Our to research group and others have shown that moving unhealthy foods away from store entrances, checkouts and aisle ends, and replacing them with healthy or non-food alternatives can improve people’s shopping and eating habits, even among families with poorer diets.
Many retailers made changes for the better after the announcement of this new legislation. They’ve invested time and money to understand its complexity, redesign stores, test which healthier promotions work, and change product ingredients to make them healthier so they can continue to be marketed.
Unfortunately, some stores exploit loopholes in the legislation. For example, some outlets promote alcohol at the end of the aisle and create new promotional displays of candies, chips and sugary drinks in the middle of the aisles to boost sales. Compliance is not 100% either.
Our research team asked consumers, businesses, healthcare workers and law enforcement what they think of this new legislation. We also organized a conference to help businesses and local authorities understand its complexity. Most people think the new legislation can help everyone eat better, but as the past few weeks have shown, how shops enforce the rules needs to be monitored and the government needs to do more to fill the gaps.
Businesses, especially small and medium-sized businesses, would also benefit from additional support in navigating the new law, as they lack the legal support that large corporations have.
Local authorities are also overwhelmed by the pandemic and years of austerity and have little capacity to prioritize longer-term health issues without additional funding.
Junk food cycle
To tackle unhealthy diets and obesity in a way that gives everyone in the UK an equal chance of good health, the government needs to put in place policies that change food environments and the food system. at the source of the problem. The food industry and its customers are trapped in what has been described as the junk food cyclewhere unhealthy foods are cheap to make, highly profitable, appealing to eat, and affordable to buy.
The UK government’s anti-obesity legislation must be maintained and expanded to break the cycle of junk food. Measuring the impact of these policies on the foods people buy and eat will confirm that this is the right approach to take.
A continued commitment to legislation that limits the amount of companies that can promote and advertise unhealthy foods and move away from approaches that rely on individuals to bring about change would cement the UK government’s position as a world leader on this important problem.