It seems like a long time ago Boris Johnson became an unlikely child of the war on obesity.
At the time the Prime Minister launched the government’s obesity strategy in July 2020, he had just recovered from near-fatal contact with Covid. He quickly proposed groundbreaking measures to curb the country’s expanding waistline, including scrapping “buy one, get one free” promotions and imposing strict limits on junk food ads.
Yet the Prime Minister has clearly realized what he sees as an even deadlier threat: that posed by Tory backbenchers who are mobilizing against ‘nanny state’ measures to increase the food prices amid a cost of living crisis.
So on Saturday, after days of rampant speculation, ministers finally confirmed the decision to suspend restrictions on multiple purchase offers and HFSS advertising, blaming the “unprecedented” financial pressures facing struggling Britons. Only the ban on HFSS food promotions in prominent places is set to go into effect in October — for now, at least.
Many, both within the industry and in the ranks of health activists, are convinced that the delays on the old measures will eventually be permanent.
Backbench conservatives have apparently invented a new phase for this approach – “keep banning”. And certainly saying “getting bogged down” to the ban fits a series of so-called “red meat” policies from No. 10: think of the refugees being shipped to Rwanda, or the 90,000 civil servants getting run over. Clearly, the Prime Minister’s new priority is to restore his reputation as a courageous and pragmatic decision-maker, with a grassroots twist.
While in some ways that would be refreshing, given the endless series of delays and overhauls of a number of food and drink policies, it does leave huge questions about what comes next for the policy of UK public health.
Significantly, it also puts the government on a collision course with the very man it employed to craft its response to the obesity crisis: Henry Dimbleby. The government is due to publish its white paper in response to its national food strategy next month.
As one of the co-creators of the bogof ban and the ad crackdown, which featured in the first part of his report, it’s no wonder Dimbleby is now in turmoil over this which he described as an “extraordinary” descent. The Leon co-founder accused the government of a false claim that canning bogofs would help cut the cost of food.
“That’s clearly not the case,” Dimbleby told the BBC’s Today programme. “The reason food companies use bogofs is because they know that with certain products, if you buy in bulk, people buy more. They do bogofs because they know people will end up eating more and will spend more on these foods.
“With advertising, the ban will actually reduce costs for food businesses,” he added. “The cost of living argument is complete nonsense.”
Yet setting aside his dubious conclusion that advertising isn’t working, Dimbleby also admitted there was a chance the government would act on the measures proposed in the second part of his strategy, which calls for new taxes. on products high in salt and sugar. .
“I accept that at the moment it’s a pretty difficult concept to get across,” he said today.
The same goes for anything that can be linked to rising prices. And there is little in current financial forecasts to suggest that the context will change anytime soon.
Indeed, the same political battle that saw Johnson abandon the ban on bogof and the turn seems likely to be repeated with exactly the same outcome as we inch closer to a future election. With statistics from The Grocer showing that multiple purchases are becoming an important part of supermarkets’ methods of keeping prices down, the economic case for abandoning moves altogether will be compelling.
Health campaigners who point to the enormous cost to society of the obesity crisis will have their work cut out for them to reverse the trend – although many agree with them.