Boris Johnson is already facing a growing backlash within his party over his decision to shelve a plan to ban “buy-one-get-one-free” supermarket deals and pre-watershed TV advertising for junk food.
The prime minister ordered the delay as part of a decree for Whitehall to find ways of easing the cost of living crisis. However, senior Tories have warned the delay risks heaping more pressure on the NHS and contributing to serious disease.
Dan Poulter, a Tory MP and former health minister, urged the prime minister to rethink. “The biggest health challenge facing the UK is obesity, which we know is linked to many chronic health conditions including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure – all of which can shorten lives and put tremendous pressure on the NHS,” he told the Observe.
“Whilst there is no silver bullet, banning junk food advertisements and buy-one-get-one-free deals would be an important step forwards, so it is disappointing the government is shelving these plans, and I hope it reconsiders.”
The decision is likely to receive scrutiny from the Commons health select committee. It is headed by Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary who once described the worsening childhood obesity problem as a national emergency.
Another former health minister warned the decision could “blow a hole” in the government’s obesity strategy, which Johnson championed after his own weight put him at risk when he became ill with Covid-19.
James Bethell, who piloted the measures, said dropping the plans risked having a “massive follow-on effect on all of our health targets”. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “The cancer 10-year plan, the extra five years of longevity and many more of our health targets are damaged by this.” “All of this illness that is caused by [being] overweight from junk food is being carried by the NHS and by the taxpayer. We do need to account for all of the costs of the obesity crisis in this country, and it is one way of mitigating those costs without actually banning things or taking more extreme measures.”
Former health secretary Matt Hancock has also previously stated that if overweight adults lost five pounds in weight, it could save the NHS some £100m. The prime minister took the decision to shelve the measures for at least a year after a ministerial meeting last week on the cost of living. With the Treasury reluctant to spend more on tackling the issue, all departments are under pressure to find ways of easing the crisis.
Bethell warned that delaying the plans effectively meant they would not go ahead before the next election – putting them at risk indefinitely. “Parliamentary practicalities are that it will be extremely difficult to return to these measures before the next election,” he said. “I’d like to take the government at its word, but naturally I am concerned that this is backing off the obesity strategy top to bottom.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has said the delayed ban on multi-buy promotions would come into effect in October 2023, and that on TV adverts before the 9pm watershed will now be in January 2024.