Restrictions on advertising and promotions are among measures the UK has announced today (27 July) to fight obesity, moves the food industry have labelled “a punishing blow”.

The Government this morning confirmed speculation that emerged late last week, with a series of initiatives designed to tackle what it called an “obesity time bomb” made more urgent by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Saturday, Public Health England issued a report the agency said confirmed being obese or excessively overweight increases the risk of “severe illness and death” from the novel coronavirus.

The UK government said new laws would ban the advertising of food high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) on television and online before 9pm when children are most likely to see them. A “short consultation” will be held on whether the ban on online adverts should apply at all times of day.

Legislation will come in to restrict the promotion of HFSS foods, including ‘buy one, get one free’ discounts. There will also be a ban on the foods being placed in “prominent locations in stores”, such as at checkouts and entrances, as well as online.

The measures also include requirements for restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees to add calorie labels to the food they sell. Doctors will be offered incentives to ensure obese people are given support for weight loss.

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There will also be a consultation over the UK’s front-of-pack nutritional labels, comparing the system to international examples.

With public health a devolved issue in the UK, not all of the measures and proposed initiatives to apply to each part of the country. “Advertising is UK-wide. The FOP [front-of-pack labelling] consultation is four-nation. Everything else is England-only,” a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson – historically sceptical about government intervention in efforts to curb obesity – is said to have changed his stance since he contracted Covid-19 earlier in the year.

“Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier. If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS [UK’s National Health Service],” Johnson said.

UK trade body The Food and Drink Federation hit out at the plans. “The UK’s food and drink manufacturers and the half a million people we employ – so recently the heroes heralded by government for feeding the nation during the Covid crisis – will be reeling today from this punishing blow,” Tim Rycroft, the chief operating officer at the FDF, insisted.

“As the economy struggles to recover, new restrictions on promoting and advertising everyday food and drink will increase the price of food, reduce consumer choice and threaten jobs across the UK.” Pointing to assessments carried out by the UK government, Rycroft claimed the restrictions on promotions and advertising would “save 17 calories a day”.

Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of food and environment pressure group Sustain, described the measures as “a good starter from which to build the menu of policy options”.

He added: “The inclusion of world leading restrictions on junk food advertising is a real game changer. Whilst it is not a silver bullet, it has been the missing ingredient in countless Government strategies over the years to tackle obesity. We welcome the Government’s commitments to introducing a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising, and restrictions on promotions of unhealthy products in store, as well as the commitments to review labelling, and this is something that the parents we hear from day in day out will also be celebrating.

“We will continue to push for the next course to also include reviewing labelling, packaging, high street food business incentives and fiscal measures for healthier food, so that today’s children grow up healthier, happier and more resilient in the face of any future disease or risk.”

Katharine Jenner, campaign director at Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, insisted the measures would mean “for the more responsible companies, this is an opportunity to build back better, making and promoting healthier options”. 

However, she added: “It’s a missed opportunity that mandatory targets for reformulation i.e. removing unnecessary calories, sugar and salt from products have been excluded from Boris’s announcement along with their proper enforcement. Further more, it’s absurd that the highly successful soft drinks levy has not been extended to other unhealthy sugar foods and drinks.”

just-food column [free to read]: Why UK obesity reset is watershed moment – in more ways than one