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The government is set to review its major anti-obesity strategy, weeks before one of its key measures was due to be introduced to UK supermarkets in a bid to curb our national addiction to junk food.
The review, ordered in by ministers at the Treasury, will assess the incoming bans on sugary products at checkouts, set to hit shelves on October 1 – as well as bans on “buy-one-get-one-free” deals on foods high in salt, fat and sugar.
However, health campaigners have expressed concern that measures they spent years fighting for may now be rolled back at the eleventh hour.
Among rules the review will reconsider is a suggested cutback on TV ads for food high in fat, salt and sugar showing before the 9pm watershed. It could also look at axing calorie counts on menus in cafes, takeaways and restaurants, a measure that was introduced – not without controversy – as recently as April.
It may even re-assess the sugar tax, introduced in 2018, which added a levy on sugary drinks – leading manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of many of our favourites. Drinks containing 5g of sugar per 100ml are taxed at 18p per litre, and those with more than 8g per 100ml are taxed at 24p per litre.
Liz Truss signposted the possible policy review during her campaign to be Conservative party leader.
“Talking about whether or not somebody should buy a two-for-one offer? No. There is definitely enough of that,” she told the Daily Mail in early August.
“What people want the government to be doing is delivering good roads, good rail services, making sure there’s broadband, making sure there’s mobile phone coverage, cutting the NHS waiting lists, helping people get a GP appointment,” she added. “They don’t want the government telling them what to eat.”
At the time, Professor Rachel Batterham from the Royal College of Physicians, labelled the suggested move “incredibly disappointing and short-sighted”.
High levels of excess weight were a factor in a large number of cases of people who needed life-saving care after becoming infected during the pandemic.
And health campaigners aren’t happy about the possible Tory u-turn.
Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 organisations that advocate for policies to tackle obesity, told HuffPost UK its members were “deeply concerned by rumours suggesting that the government might drop obesity policies which are designed to put healthy affordable food in the spotlight.”
“This will not help the cost of living crisis in the short term, and in the long term would lead to serious consequences for our health, our economy and our NHS,” she said.
Jenner added that it would be “reckless, and a great shame to waste government and business time and money rowing back on these obesity policies, which are evidence-based and already in law.”
“These policies are popular with the public who want it to be easier to make healthier choices. Not implementing these evidence-based policies is a kick in the teeth to families trying their hardest to live well on a budget.”
Reaction on social media has been divided, with some applauding the rollback.
“Good. Taxing bad food does nothing to stop people eating bad food,” tweeted one.
But others agreed with campaigners, “Any scrapping of child health policies will harm children and struggling families as they try to put healthy food on the table. Protecting children’s health isn’t just fair, it will SAVE the NHS!” said one.
Food retailers also added their voices. “As someone working for a supermarket and having some idea of the time and money that has gone into meeting the new legal requirements that come in force next month [this] government can get in the sea if it now rows back on that,” wrote one Twitter user.
According to a Guardian source, Truss’s approach to the issue is “ideological”, driven by her belief in deregulating business, rather than by health policy.
Another source told the newspaper that health secretary and deputy prime minister Thérèse Coffey didn’t have much appetite for “nanny state stuff”.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.