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Will the government’s new obesity strategy work?

Sallyanne Smith looks at the government’s latest public health campaign to tackle obesity. 

In July the government announced its new obesity strategy, Tackling Obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives, following a report collating evidence that obesity is linked to worse outcomes during Covid-19.  

For decades the government has been concerned about the nation’s weight due to its association with adverse health outcomes (from risk of cardiovascular disease to cancer), which place a huge burden on the NHS. But strategies to encourage healthy eating and tackle childhood obesity have not stopped the population from gaining weight and three in ten of us are now obese

The government describes the new initiative as an “effort to shift healthcare to focus more on public health and prevention”.  At its heart is its ‘Better Health‘ public health campaign, encouraging those who are overweight to move towards a healthier weight using tools and apps, alongside the expansion of NHS weight management services.

The strategy has been generally well received but it’s not without its critics. Not least because of the title of its press release New obesity strategy unveiled as country urged to lose weight to beat coronavirus (COVID-19) and protect the NHS. In reality, many of the measures may take years to implement and won’t impact Covid-19 anytime soon. But, the government recognises that Covid-19 presents a compelling opportunity for us to focus on our health, calling it a ‘wake up call’.

Pegasus’ own research has found that since lockdown, we are more motivated to self care and plan to be more proactive about managing our health, we also have more awareness of how our own health impacts health services. Even the Prime Minister admits his hospitalisation for Covid-19 has turned him from food libertarian to hardliner.

However, one of the loudest criticisms is that this Covid-19 framing, could create a blame culture, among those struggling with obesity.

Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, believes the strategy does not go far enough to tackle the complexities, as it doesn’t “place enough emphasis on the biological, genetic, and social factors that lead to obesity”, noting a focus on individual responsibility hasn’t, and doesn’t work.

Another frequent criticism of the government, is its confused messaging around individual responsibility. The obesity strategy was launched just a week before ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ offering half price meals in restaurants from Monday to Wednesday in August.  This is in direct contrast to section four of the obesity strategy, which states that on average, “food or drink that people eat out… contain twice as many calories as their equivalent bought in a shop”.

Weight-loss is, of course, more complex than simply counting calories, and questions remain around whether the strategy goes far enough to address socio-economic factors, such as ensuring low-income families have access to healthy food and space to exercise. It shouldn’t be about simply restricting people from accessing more readily available, cheaper unhealthy food options.

There are also calls for the food industry to be more accountable.  The strategy includes measures aimed at curtailing the promotion of foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) including:

  • legislation requiring calories to be added to restaurant menus; bans on volume promotion of HFSS foods and their prominent placement in store/on line; banning TV/online adverts before the watershed
  • consultations on ‘traffic light’ labelling; potential calorie labelling on alcohol; total HFSS online advertising restrictions

Creating behaviour-change in public health requires a holistic approach. Health strategies where government, industry, health services and the individual come together, create incredibly positive results, but cultural shift is not quick and will often include changes that only become acceptable to us over time. Anti-smoking campaigns started as early as the 1950s but it was only when support services, taxation and bans ramped-up early this century that we started to see real change.

The implementation of the obesity campaign is not off to a flying start, with the winding down of Public Health England and formation of the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) to focus on contagious disease and external threats. We await further consultation, to see exactly how the government propose to drive forward it’s newly announced obesity strategy, along with its wider health improvement and prevention agenda.

Sallyanne Smith is a Client Director in the Consumer Health Team at Pegasus, she has over 20 years’ experience working in consumer and ethical healthcare communications.