Boris Johnson’s changed appetite in the fight against obesity

I wrote recently about what governments, particularly the UK government, might do next in the fight against Covid-19. I pointed out that in the absence of a vaccine or treatment, attention would turn to measures to make the population more resilient. I didn’t expect I would have to come back to this subject quite so quickly.

In his inaugural interview with Times Radio on 29th June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed precisely this point. He acknowledged that in the past he had fought against the ‘nanny state’, but that his personal encounter with Covid-19 had changed his appetite.

When campaigning to be the new Conservative Leader only a year ago, he promised to stop all talk of new ‘sin taxes’ in contrast with his nearest challenger Jeremy Hunt. By now saying “….when you look at the numbers,…we are significantly fatter than most others…it’s an issue”, and “…we will be happier and fitter and more resistant to diseases like Covid if we can tackle obesity” he realigns with previous administrations.

So the next public health juggernaut looks like it’s coming down the road. Manufacturers of feelgood foods such as sweets, biscuits, chocolate and cakes, who may have taken comfort from the fact that their products provided enjoyment to those isolating at home during lockdown, will be jolted back to reality. 

British people are not ‘fatter’ than people of other nations, but it is true that the UK has the second highest proportion of obese people in its population compared to the 27 EU countries. This fact is not new and periodically, campaigners warn of the “ticking obesity timebomb” in an effort to create urgency around the need for regulatory action.

Armed with new Covid-19 data, they will no doubt try to claim that the timebomb has now detonated and urge the government to intervene. Given the amount of government airtime public health leaders have had in the past six months, it is fair to assume that these conversations have already taken place.

For sugar, seen as the key enemy in the fight against obesity, the stage is already set. In 2015, then Chancellor George Osborne introduced the sugar tax, officially known as the soft drink industry levy (SDIL). The second part of Public Health England’s sugar reduction programme was to encourage manufacturers of sugar-rich foods to reduce the levels by 20% between 2016 and 2020. 

In June 2018, a government report hailed the success of the sugar tax but flagged that progress on sugar reduction in other products was short of target. It warned that “We will not shy away from further action, including mandatory and fiscal levers, if industry is failing to face up to the scale of the problem through voluntary reduction programmes.”

Some have called the 20% reduction by 2020 an impossible target, but a good deal of progress appears to have been made. According to the UK Food & Drink Federation, UK food and drink producers have collectively removed over 90 million kilogrammes of sugar from their products since 2015. That’s a lot, but sadly progress is measured not in absolute amounts but in percentage terms compared to the now embedded 20% ambition.

Indeed, in September 2019, Public Health England reported that whilst the sugar tax had cut sugar in soft drinks by an average of 28.8% (AND raised £157m in revenue), sugary food products had reduced by only 2.9% on average between 2016 and 2019. If the final report concludes that the 20% ambition has been missed, and with the Prime Minister’s epiphany in mind, those mandatory and fiscal levers will look tempting.

Campaigners will be more than ready. They have called for wide-ranging measures already, like an extension of the sugar tax to non-fizzy drinks and foodstuffs, advertising restrictions, health warnings and even plain packaging for products deemed particularly offensive.

Some or all of those commercial freedoms can presumably be retained or earned back by reformulating products to keep or move sugar levels below a certain threshold. But what’s the use of full commercial freedoms for a product that meets the threshold but that consumers no longer find palatable? Also, the threshold itself may be kept under constant review against emerging data, causing industry to chase a moving target. 

I cannot imagine that the food and drinks industry is comfortable being positioned, even if it is done implicitly, as the main cause of obesity and as failing to face up to the challenge. While it sounds good for campaigners or politicians to say that all it takes is to pull a few regulatory and fiscal levers to herd industry down a desired path, there is clearly much more to solving the obesity challenge than that.

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