New study urges UK Government to tackle rising obesity numbers by ditching individualised public health policies

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AUTHOR: Molly Long
Foods with a link to obesity struggles

The Government must take stronger action to tackle ill health risk factors like obesity if it wants to reverse years of “slow, uneven and disjointed” policy making, a new study from the Health Foundation states. 

Leading risk factors associated with ill health and early death, which include poor diet, physical inactivity, smoking and harmful alcohol consumption, persist particularly among financially disadvantaged groups. 

If the Government wishes to achieve its ‘levelling up’ mission and boost life expectancy, the report says it must switch from its current approach – which relies heavily on policies which promote individual action and behaviour change – to one with an emphasis on population-level interventions. 

The Health Foundation says tackling poor diets in this way should be a high priority, given that 60,000 deaths in England were attributable to poor eating habits in 2019.

Fruit and vegetable consumption has been “consistently low” over the last decade. In 2018, fewer than three in 10 adults in England ate the recommended five portions a day. Again, this is particularly true of those living in poorer parts of the country. 

Obesity is one of the most pressing side effects from consistently poor diets and this comes with its own host of health problems, from type 2 diabetes to cardiovascular and liver disease, dementia and some cancers. Pre-pandemic, an NHS report found 63% of British adults were overweight, with 28% classified as obese. One in three children were also found to be obese. 

However, the report also says diets low in nutritious wholefoods and high in sugar and ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are dangerous beyond just their links to obesity. Health impacts of such diets include hypertension, heart disease, poor oral health and some cancers. 

The Health Foundation’s report examined the Government’s proposals to ameliorate the nation’s diets, finding that action on the matter has been largely inadequate across the board. 

While some policies – like the 2018 soft drinks levy – have sought to tackle the wider issue of poor diets and obesity, the report says the Government’s preoccupation with changing individual behaviour has capped the success of further policies. 

It gives the example of the “Better Health” information campaign and related NHS app, which put the onus on individuals to commit and engage with the programme. 

Few fiscal or regulatory policies have been introduced aimed at directly shaping the choices available to individuals,” the report explains. This is in spite of the proven success of some such measures, like the banning of advertising of HFSS foods on public transport, in London, which has led to a significant drop in associated food sales. 

Additionally, several proposed plans for addressing the issue have either been dropped or postponed. The implementation of legislation limiting the promotion and advertising of HFSS products across the whole country, for example, is in danger of being pushed back to the beginning of next year. 

Meanwhile front-of-pack nutrition labelling reforms and the ban of sales of energy drinks to under-16s have seen no implementation whatsoever. 

Elsewhere, the report has found similarly lacklustre efforts in tackling other risk factors, like smoking and drinking. 

The report says the approach has been widely “uneven”, with particularly weak action taken to address harmful alcohol use. 

No Government strategy to address alcohol harm has been published since 2012 – when it was promised a “radical change in approach” would be implemented. 

Ideas like a minimum unit price for alcohol, and the outlawing of multi-buy alcohol promotions were tabled, and then ultimately backtracked on. 

Policy Fellow at the Health Foundation, Grace Everest, said: “If the government is serious about achieving its levelling up mission on healthy life expectancy – not to mention the targets that have been set on obesity and tobacco – then it urgently needs to shift its approach. 

“Government’s focus needs to be on population-level policies that aim to alter the environments in which people live – including taxation, regulation, and public spending – which should be implemented alongside more targeted interventions to support those most in need. 

“Wider action is also needed to address the root causes of poor health and widening inequalities.”  

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