Let them eat junk food? Johnson seems to have forgotten how obesity put his life at risk
It’s immoral to delay curbs on unhealthy meals and blame the cost of living crisis – as the PM must know only too well
You’d think a person would remember why they were admitted to intensive care and nearly died, even if that person was a politician, with one of those notoriously short memories. In April 2020, just over two years ago, Boris Johnson could have become our late prime minister. Another life snuffed out by Covid-19 to add to the daily death toll. Others in his circle caught the virus, but for him it was nearly fatal – in part because his obesity made him highly vulnerable to the disease.
Johnson himself said this. It’s not a matter of debate. In the aftermath, and to his credit, he launched another anti-obesity strategy. There have been a lot of them, but more on that later. This time, the government’s proposals looked promising, aimed at curbing the heavy marketing of junk food that ends up in children’s stomachs and turns into the internal fat that surrounds adult organs, causing chronic illnesses. I’ve seen the X-rays. It’s not pretty and it kills. And this grim spiral costs NHS England at least £6bn a year.
Experts agree that it’s the easy availability and low cost of highly calorific, sugary, salty, fatty food that has to be tackled if obesity is to be reduced. The supermarket shelves loaded with biscuits and sweets and crisps. The takeaway outlets with high calorie ready meals swimming in grease. Telling individuals to just lose weight is no good at all – and unfair. The highest numbers of overweight and obese people are found in the poorest and most deprived communities. It’s the devil’s own bargain: unhealthy food is tasty and cheap. People are used to eating pies or fried chicken and chips, filling up between meals with salty or sugary snacks. We develop the taste for such foods, the kids clamour for them, and so many families short on money buy processed food and skip the fruit and vegetables, which cost more.
Junk food is heavily promoted and discounted. That was what Johnson pledged to tackle in the wake of his hospital stay. But now the government is dragging its feet over some of the key measures that everyone applauded when the strategy was introduced in July 2020. The ban on multi-buy offers, such as BOGOF (buy one, get one free) deals on foods high in fat, salt or sugar, is postponed until October next year – 12 months after it was supposed to come in. The other key measure, a ban on online adverts to children and TV advertising of such foods before the 9pm watershed, is delayed until January 2024.
Why? Because families are struggling with the cost of living, says the government. And to give industry “time to prepare”. The implication is clear: deprived families should carry on buying cheap junk food that endangers the health of their children.
Health campaigners are in despair. They have been calling for these particular measures for decades now, only to see them snatched away at the 11th hour. “Our appetite cannot cope with what food companies are throwing at it. We are programmed to seek out calorie-dense food, and we eat too much of it and it’s making us sick,” said Henry Dimbleby, the independent author of the government’s national food strategy.
But it’s not just health campaigners who are raising the alarm. Senior Tory politicians are lining up to condemn this delay, which they know could well be a permanent U-turn. William Hague denounced the change of plan in the Times as “intellectually shallow, politically weak and morally reprehensible”. One in five children are obese by the time they are 11, “their chances of living a long and healthy life already impaired,” he said. He called it a national disgrace.
Lord Bethell, a Tory minister at the Department of Health until September last year, called the delay “unconservative” and suggested it would be hard for the bans to be put into force now before the next election. Also writing in the Times, he said that without good health, people could not fulfil their potential. “They are less economically productive, less able to create and care for a family, more likely to need medical and financial support from the state, and more likely to die young.” He was concerned, too, he said, at the burden imposed by obesity on the NHS.
Related: ‘We need to break the junk food cycle’: how to fix Britain’s failing food system
Obesity massively increased in the 1980s, in Thatcher’s “have it all” Britain. The seminal Foresight report on its causes and effects in 2007 laid out what every investigation since has confirmed, that changes are needed to our whole food environment. But no government has done enough. Too many voluntary agreements have been made with the food industry. Too few restrictions on sales and promotions have been enforced. One obesity strategy after another has failed to deliver. A Cambridge study published last year identified 14 government-led obesity strategies in England from 1992-2020, containing 689 wide-ranging policies. And still the overweight and obesity figures rise.
The latest delays are unpardonable. If the government is really worried about struggling families’ bills, then do something to help them buy better food. Subsidise fruit and vegetables and real ingredients. Make simple healthy meals cheaper and slap tax on junk food, as they successfully did on sugary drinks. The savings to the NHS and increased productivity from a healthier workforce would amply repay the cost. It’s frankly immoral to let the nation’s children sleepwalk into an adulthood of health problems and shortened lives. The next generation deserves so much more.
Sarah Boseley is the former health editor of the Guardian