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Banning promotions on HFSS foods would reduce the choice on shelf and increase prices for shoppers

Tackling obesity is an important public health priority, irrespective of economics. Indeed, with increasing evidence of the association between obesity and poorer Covid-19 outcomes, the government is right to want to help the nation to reduce their waistlines.

The solution proposed in their latest obesity strategy – to ban most retail promotions of food and drinks high in fat, sugars or salt (HFSS) – makes no sense, however.

Doing so would increase the price of food for shoppers, reduce the choice on shelf, hurt SMEs and (the government’s own figures say) make almost zero difference to our waistlines.

What’s my evidence? Government data shows that, on average, people would have to spend £634 a year more for the same food if promotions were banned; that these changes would result in a meagre 15-calorie daily reduction in calorie consumption is direct from the government’s own impact assessments.

The IRI’s latest data revealed in The Grocer last week highlighted that if sub-categories with greater than 10% sugar ceased off-shelf promotions, £1.7bn is at risk. This doesn’t even touch the surface of the vast array of products affected by the proposals (garlic bread, cooking sauces and condiments, to name a few). This will be a devastating economic blow for companies, who have been working hard to keep the nation fed during the pandemic and who are preparing for a new regime with the EU.

Promotional restrictions will work against Public Health England’s (PHE) reformulation programmes. Food and drink manufacturers have worked hard to reformulate many of the nation’s favourite products and reduce portion sizes. As a result, the average shopping basket of the FDF’s member products contain 11% less sugars and calories and 14% less salt than four years ago. However, these promotional bans will mean that many reformulated or smaller portioned products will no longer be part of promotional offers. Ultimately, this will inhibit the ability of businesses to bring these products to market successfully and encourage the nation to buy healthier options.

There must come a point when government stops punishing industry and starts to address the complex, myriad, underlying drivers of obesity. Matt Hancock, in his paper Prevention is better than cure two years ago, called for more targeted interventions to tackle obesity. That would be a good start.

Only a holistic approach to obesity has a chance of success. It is time for the government to invest money behind specific measures that support those people and areas most affected by obesity, instead of pursuing headline-chasing policies that impact all consumers.