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by GK Strategy 19th August, 2016
3 min read

The Government’s Obesity Strategy: The end of the beginning?

After some delay, the Government has now published its Childhood Obesity Strategy, setting out an array of policy initiatives to try and bring down the £5.1 billion spent by NHS England on obesity-related illnesses. Whilst the Strategy now launches a raft of policies, the array of new ideas, reviews and consultations it leads to means that there is still much uncertainty regarding the future of obesity policy and what those initiatives already announced will actually look like.

The headline policy in the new Obesity Strategy is the soft drinks levy across the UK (the so-called “sugar tax”), which was announced in the Budget in March. However, even now the details are yet to be firmed up. We know that producers and importers will have 2 years before the levy is introduced. The tax is expected to be set at 18p per litre for drinks with more than 5g of sugar per litre, and 24p for drinks with more than 8g of sugar per litre. However, nothing is set in stone and the Treasury has now opened a consultation on the technical details before legislating for it within the Finance Bill next year.

The assault on sugar doesn’t stop with the soft drinks levy. Public Health England (PHE) plans to “challenge” all sectors of the food and drinks industry (affecting retailers, manufacturers, restaurants, takeaways and cafés) to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one. These challenges will take the form of voluntary targets for sugar reduction per 100g, although the precise nature of these targets is still being formulated and due to be published by PHE in March 2017. Should these targets not be met, PHE will consider “alternative leavers” to reduce sugar content in September 2018 and March 2020, carrying the threat of more punitive measures if companies don’t reduce sugar levels voluntarily. However, industry has hit back, with supermarkets insisting that the Government needs to legislate for these targets in order to ensure that there is a level playing field.

Another area under the spotlight is food and drink advertising and packaging. PHE plans to build on existing restrictions on advertising, consulting stakeholders from industry as well as experts to review the nutrient profile model, which determines advertising regulation. The Government explicitly plans to capitalise on post-Brexit freedom from EU regulations in making new labelling rules, meaning that the whole framework could be completely overhauled. Whilst health campaigners have been vocally disappointed that the Government has apparently pulled its punches on advertising restrictions, in reality the decision whether to throw those punches has just been pushed further down the line.

The potential winners from the Strategy are health and fitness organisations, for whom there are opportunities for engagement with the public education sector thrown up by the emphasis on promoting exercise. In England, the proceeds of the soft drinks levy will be invested in programmes to encourage physical activity and health eating in schools. This will be delivered by government working with national and local providers to set up sport and physical activity programmes starting in every primary school in England from September 2017. This will be backed up with new PHE guidelines on health and fitness that will be monitored by Ofsted.

While David Cameron and George Osborne introduced the sugar tax policy and set up the Obesity Strategy to take a firmer line in penalising the food and drinks industry, some observers might see the supposed “watering down” of the final document as evidence of Theresa May’s administration backing away from her predecessor’s more interventionist stance on this area. However, rather than the final word on obesity policy, the Obesity Strategy is not the end of the policy-making process – it is fact the end of the beginning. With so much of the crucial detail still to be decided – from the sugar reduction targets and mechanics of the soft drinks levy, to how and where money will be spent on school sports and fitness – this area of policy is far from settled. For many organisations, from anti-obesity charities, public health groups and fitness companies, to advertisers, food and drinks manufacturers and retailers, there is a lot at stake in terms of threats and opportunities. This means that for organisations and companies interested in the policy area, there is still time to engage policy-makers and have their input into the decision-making process.

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