Scotland has decided to pause plans to limit the way foods high in fat, sugar or salt can be promoted in the country.

Joe FitzPatrick, Scotland’s minister for public health, said there were no longer plans to introduce the Restricting Food Promotions Bill in this parliament, which ends in May 2021.

“We remain fully committed to restricting the promotion and marketing of foods high in fat, sugar or salt where they are sold to the public and will seek to progress this measure as soon as it is possible to do so,” FitzPatrick said. “Pausing the introduction of the bill provides us with an opportunity to take stock, take into account the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown, including on people’s diet and healthy weight.”

In the summer of 2018, a curb on the promotion and marketing of HFSS foods was among proposals laid out by the devolved Scottish government to tackle obesity in the country. Health is a devolved policy issue in the UK, enabling Scotland to follow measures different from the rest of the UK. 

At the heart of the plan was the objective to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030. Last September, the Scottish government reaffirmed their belief in the plan, including the move in the legislative programme for the year ahead.

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Food and Drink Federation Scotland, the trade association representing food and soft-drink manufacturers operating in the country, said it welcomed the decision to put the plan on hold.

“The Scottish Government has listened to FDF Scotland and our members’ concerns that these proposals would have had a devastating economic impact on smaller Scottish food businesses, who sell the majority of their products in Scotland,” David Thomson, the CEO of FDF Scotland, said.

“Our food and drink manufacturers are facing increasingly difficult times due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis, as well as the uncertainty around the UK’s future trade deals with the EU and further afield. We call on the Scottish Government to continue to work with us to ensure our vital sector is supported to recover and prosper into the future.

“Our members take their role in improving the health of the Scottish people seriously and will continue to play their part.”

Campaign group Obesity Action Scotland called the decision “disappointing news”. 

Lorraine Tulloch, programme lead of Obesity Action Scotland, said: “While I understand that the food environment in Scotland has changed radically during the pandemic it has also become increasingly clear that people with obesity have had much worse outcomes from Covid-19, with an increased risk of being admitted to intensive care and of dying. If we want to secure the health, resilience and longevity of the people of Scotland then tackling overweight and obesity must be a priority. I would urge the Scottish Government to re-introduce this measure as soon as possible.

“The most effective way to prevent obesity is to improve the food environment including restricting promotions on unhealthy foods and restricting the wider advertising and marketing of these products. Whilst the industry has stepped up to the mark in the supply and distribution of food during this pandemic they need to show the same leadership and responsibility in keeping our population healthy by stopping promotions of unhealthy foods and promoting healthy options.”

This week, researchers at Queen Mary University of London claimed there is “increasing evidence” showing a link between obesity and the severity of illnesses from Covid-19 – and deaths.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food and soft-drink manufacturers operating in the UK as a whole, said it found the implication the food industry is connected with the Covid-19 mortality rate “deeply offensive”. The trade body is encouraging the government to promote a change in lifestyles to combat obesity, it added.