The UK government’s action plan on childhood obesity in England, launched today (18 August), has been criticised by industry bodies, health campaigners and medical professionals alike. 

This, like the previously leaked contents of the strategy itself, was predictable. Policymakers try to seek a path which offers something palatable to both sides, even in fairly polarised debates. Ending up with both sides being unhappy about what they did not get is simply the other side of the coin.

However, an even share of reasons to be cheerful or angry is rare, and in this instance campaigners have more to gripe about than industry. In fact, the government’s plan probably represents the best industry could have hoped for.

Crucially for food companies, they will not face tighter controls on promotions or advertising. The first two levers on a list of eight identified in the report on sugar reduction published by government health advisory body Public Health England (PHE) last October related specifically to these two areas. 

It appears, as campaigners have claimed, recently-installed UK Prime Minister Theresa May has responded to industry concerns – and lobbying – about placing additional regulatory burdens on the UK’s largest manufacturing sector at a time of economic uncertainty in the wake of the Brexit vote.

While the levy on sweetened soft drinks has been retained (and will roll out across the UK) food companies can be grateful soft drinks remain the only target for fiscal measures, though those with soft drinks in their portfolios may think differently.

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Food companies can also be happy encouraging more physical activity among children and young people has been prioritised in the strategy. Indeed, this is one of the areas earmarked for the revenue generated by the soft drinks levy. Thus, it could be argued that clearly enshrined in the action plan is the idea processed food is not the only problem.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) may decry the focus on one nutrient, namely sugar, as “flawed” but, in light of the Public Health England report and the momentum gained by the Action on Sugar campaign, a strong focus on sugar was inevitable.

However, food companies should welcome the emphasis is being placed on voluntary sugar reduction through reformulation – with lower targets than campaigners were calling for – rather than trying to curtail sales through taxes or regulation. 

Reformulation is a positive story for industry. They are not being told to desist from doing something, but rather to apply their expertise positively in pursuit of a socially beneficial goal. 

Included in the plan are measures to foster innovation in healthier foods through the recently formed Agri-Food Technology Council and the Food Innovation Network. This facet of the strategy was specifically called out on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme by Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jane Ellison, who added that this would not only aid the fight against childhood obesity but also boost foreign trade as such innovative food products would be sought after in export markets. Again, the Brexit vote can be seen to cast a long shadow.

The narrative from campaigners and health professionals is the strategy is weak and has been watered down from what might originally have been envisaged. The economic concerns raised by industry have outweighed the health concerns and crucial solutions recommended in the Public Health England report in October. Campaign group Action on Sugar brands the strategy as “an unforgivable missed opportunity to launch, what should have been, one of the UK’s most important public health programmes”.

While campaigners are more agitated today than industry lobbyists, when the dust settles they may see some grounds for satisfaction.
As much as industry advocates may criticise the focus on sugar, this represents a victory for campaigners. The campaign to have sugar recognised in official government policy as a particular nutrient of concern has succeeded. A major weakness of the Public Health Responsibility Deal, the government’s flagship preventive health programme between 2010 and 2015, was its lack of specific reduction targets on sugar. The soft drinks levy has survived. Above all – the childhood obesity plan, delayed for a year, has now finally seen the light of day.

Even Professor Tim Lang of City University, hardly a shrinking violet when it comes to critiquing government policy, tweeted the strategy “nods in health direction” though he added it did not offer the “scale of change needed” and called for controls on advertising.

Today, the focus on reformulation is being characterised by campaigners as the easier option for food companies. They also bemoan the plan only calls for a 20% reduction in sugar levels over the coming four years, rather than the 50% Action on Sugar had called for. However, Action on Sugar is aware of the success similar targeted reductions have had on salt levels in processed foods. Action on Sugar was borne out of the Consensus Action on Salt and Health campaign, which was responsible for bringing about those targets and setting in train what is regarded as a highly successful preventive health campaign.

In particular, reformulation “by stealth”, where consumers are barely aware of the small incremental reductions being made, was deemed to be particularly successful. In placing reformulation and product innovation at the heart of the plan – even if measures to curb advertising and promotion have been overlooked – the UK government has at least prioritised one pivotal component in tackling obesity.

Limiting the reduction target to 20% may be seen as an unambitious rather than a “stretch target” but sugar reduction is generally seen by food technologists as a tougher nut to crack than salt reduction. A little more ambition may have been desirable but the Government appears to have opted for what it sees as a realistic – and achievable – target.

The fact the strategy was launched while May was on holiday is significant but not massively so. Clearly, the idea of launching a policy that was likely to attract a considerable amount of negative publicity while the nation was looking the other way – namely towards Rio – outweighed any desire on the Prime Minister’s part to be seen as its primary champion. However, industry advocates would be unwise to infer from this that May is any less concerned about the obesity issue or about the effectiveness of her government’s obesity plan than her predecessor.

The suggestion from campaigners is that May has yielded too readily to industry pressure and the outcome might have been different had David Cameron remained in office long enough to make it his final legacy policy, as he had wished. This seems dubious. While Cameron had instigated the plan, he had also delayed it on a number of occasions. He seemed to have lost interest in the strategy, had vacillated over the soft drinks levy and only seemed to revive his passion for the issue when his days in office were numbered. At that stage, he would have been subject to precisely the same pressures as May and might well have come to the same conclusions. 

On the other hand, what the new Prime Minister may do rather more effectively than her predecessor is hold food companies’ feet to the fire. What is now her obesity strategy has set industry reasonable and achievable targets, giving significant concessions into the bargain, which one imagines she has indicated, in no uncertain terms, must be met. 

The Prime Minister’s growing reputation for a steely and rather unyielding leadership style, coupled with her commitment to social reform and “One Nation” Conservatism, may provide a final crumb of comfort to health campaigners on a disappointing day.