‘Don’t play politics with children’s health’, PM warned as junk food curbs are delayed

Health campaigners have accused the Government of “playing politics with our children’s health” after ministers ditched plans to ban supermarket two-for-one junk food deals.

On Friday the Government announced it was deferring the ban on buy one, get one free (also known as Bogof) deals until 2023 due to the cost of living crisis.

A ban on TV adverts for foods and drinks high in fat, salt, or sugar (HFSS) before a 9pm watershed has also been put on hold until January 2024.

The move has been welcomed by the industry and but it has alarmed health campaigners.

The charity Sustain, which runs the Children’s Food Campaign, said the Government had backtracked on its commitment to tackling obesity, arguing multibuy food discounts don’t save hard-up families money.

Barbara Crowther, of the campaign, said the Government should not be “delaying and dithering”.

“Obesity is spiking and millions of families can’t afford to put proper food on the table. Multi-buy offers make people spend more on junk, and less on healthy food,” she said.

“This delay threatens the UK target to halve childhood obesity by 2030. Boris is playing politics with our children’s health.”

The group added such deals “don’t save people money – but make us spend more overall on multiple purchases & less on healthy food & drink.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the ban on multibuy promotions will now come into effect in October 2023, while the ban on TV adverts before 9pm is delayed to January 2024.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver said a ban on TV junk food adverts before 9pm was key to protecting child health.

He tweeted: “We know there’s a vital need to protect child health and make sure the next generation doesn’t suffer from diet-related disease. Policies like restricting junk food advertising to kids are crucial for levelling up and popular with the public.

“This is a wasted opportunity and it starts to erode the whole obesity strategy – which at some point looked progressive and world-leading written down, but is falling apart when it comes to acting on these policies.

“Parents and kids don’t want to hear any more excuses from the Government. I really hope the Prime Minister BorisJohnson proves me wrong and shows real leadership to give young people a healthier and fairer future”.

Professor of Food Marketing and Child Health, Emma Boyland, at the University of Liverpool, said the delay was a “terrible decision” adding the government “once again favours big business over population health.”

For Labour, shadow public health minister Andrew Gwynne said: “Boris Johnson’s desperation to cling onto his job means the ideology of Conservative MPs is being placed above children’s health.

“Instead of cutting childhood obesity, preventing ill-health and easing pressure on the NHS, this chaotic government is performing another U-turn.”

Lord Bethell, who piloted measures to bar multibuy deals before he was sacked as a health minister in last year’s reshuffle, said failure to tackle the “obesity crisis” would simply add to the costs of the NHS.

“More people are getting cancer due to obesity-related effects. So 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.”

Lord Bethell questioned whether ministers will now be able to go ahead with the ban in the current Parliament in the face of entrenched opposition within Conservative ranks.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “I am concerned that it will blow a hole in the obesity strategy. That has a massive follow-on effect on all of our health targets.

“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.

“I think the Government really should be focusing its armour on trying to reduce the obesity crisis rather than playing to the choir.

“What we see in supermarkets at the moment is an arms race on junk food. That needs to change.”

Public health minister Maggie Throup insisted the Government remains determined to tackle the issue of childhood obesity.

“We’re committed to doing everything we can to help people live healthier lives,” she said.

“Pausing restrictions on deals like buy one, get one free will allow us to understand its impact on consumers in light of an unprecedented global economic situation.”

Industry body the Food and Drink Federation welcomed the “pragmatism” of the Government’s action.

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Kate Halliwell, its chief scientific officer, said: “At a time when both families and our manufacturers are struggling with high inflation, it makes sense to delay the restrictions on volume promotions for everyday food and drink products, including breakfast cereals, ready meals and yoghurts, as it risked further stretching already-pressed household budgets.

“We also welcome the delay to the start of advertising restrictions, given the time it will take our industry to prepare for the change in law.”

The DHSC said restrictions on the placement of less healthy products in stores and supermarkets will still come into force this October as planned.

Last month, laws on calorie labelling in large restaurants, cafes and takeaways came into force.

Additional reporting by Press Association