Scales obesity

Health campaigners have slammed a leaked version of the government’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy as a “pathetic” response to its calls to cut sugar and slap marketing restrictions on junk food.

Action on Sugar voiced anger over the “insulting” policies in a leaked version of the much-delayed strategy, which it claimed had “no specifics about any marketing restrictions” and only required a 20% reduction in sugar content – far undercutting the lobby’s calls for a 50% reduction.

It also revealed the proposals were set to be entirely voluntary, despite the BRC and the majority of supermarkets and many branded companies asking for a mandated or regulated system.

Action on Sugar has now called on new prime minister Theresa May to hold off the strategy’s publication, which The Grocer revealed this week was already set for further delays. May needed to beef up the proposals and show she was “being real” in trying to help people, especially the socially deprived, said chairman Professor Graham MacGregor.

“It is an insulting response to the UK crisis in obesity type 2 diabetes both in children and adults,” said MacGregor. “This will bankrupt the NHS unless something radical is done.”

National Obesity Forum spokesman Tam Fry said he was “livid” about the claimed contents of the strategy, spearheaded by David Cameron. The government had again “rolled over in the face of industry lobbying”. he argued. “Together with Brexit, that will be another legacy that Cameron can look forward to.”

In the strategy consultation period, Action on Sugar and Public Health England had argued that reformulation of sugar and fat in foods was the best way to reduce the country’s calorie intake, Action on Sugar called for a 50% reduction in sugar and a 20% cut in fat, and it said the government’s proposals to cut 20% of sugar didn’t go far enough.

“We also know from our experience with salt reduction that a 20% reformulation of sugar by 2020 will only result in approximately a 10% reduction given that it is a voluntary system and supervised by PHE, an agency which has already shown itself to not be independent of government and ministerial influence.”

Action on Sugar also voiced scepticism over the voluntary nature of the deal.“After the farce of the Responsibility Deal where Andrew Lansley made the food industry responsible for policing themselves, it is sad to see that this is just another imitation of the same Responsibility Deal take two,” said Professor MacGregor.

The group had also lobbied for marketing restrictions on sugary foods and drinks. According to Action on Sugar, the leaked document merely says there will be a consultation, which it called a “pathetic response given the billions of pounds the food industry spends on advertising to young children of unhealthy products”.

But the Department of Health denied suggestions it had watered down its proposals. “It would be quite wrong to suggest that our ambitions to reduce childhood obesity, or the measures we will take to achieve them, have diminished at any point in the last year,” it said. The department pledged that May and the newly appointed cabinet would work ”over coming days and weeks” to “establish their priorities and how we deliver on these commitments”.