It seems a long time ago Boris Johnson became an unlikely poster child of the war against obesity.
Back when the PM launched the government’s obesity strategy in July 2020, he had just recovered from a near-fatal brush with Covid. He promptly proposed some game-changing measures to curb the nation’s expanding waistlines – most notably, axing buy one get one free promotions and putting strict limitations on junk food ads.
Yet the PM has clearly woken up to what he regards as an even more deadly threat: the one posed by Tory backbenchers who are rallying against ‘nanny state’ measures to increase the price of food in the middle of a cost of living crisis.
So on Saturday, after days of frenzied speculation, ministers finally confirmed a decision to shelve restrictions on HFSS multibuy deals and advertising, blaming the “unprecedented” financial pressures facing hard-up Brits. Only the ban on promotions of HFSS foods in prominent locations looks set to come into force in October – for now, at least.
Many, both within the industry and the ranks of health campaigners, are convinced the delays on the former measures will end up being permanent.
Backbench Tories have apparently coined a new phase for this approach – “canning the banning”. And certainly saying ‘bog off’ to the ban fits with a raft of so-called ‘red meat’ policies coming out of No 10: think refugees being packed off to Rwanda, or 90,000 civil servants getting the chop. Clearly the PM’s new priority is to re-establish his reputation as a ballsy, no-nonsense decision maker, with the popular touch.
Whilst in some ways that would be refreshing, given the never-ending series of delays and rethinks to any number of food and drink policies, it does leave massive questions over what comes next for the UK’s public health policy.
Significantly, it also puts the government on collision course with the very man it employed to draw up its response to the obesity crisis: Henry Dimbleby. The government is due to publish its white paper response to his National Food Strategy next month.
As one of the co-creators of the bogof ban and advertising clampdown, which featured in part one of his report, it’s little wonder Dimbleby was today seething at what he described as an “extraordinary” climbdown. The Leon co-founder accused the government of a bogus claim that canning bogofs would help reduce the cost of food.
“It’s demonstrably not the case,” Dimbleby told the BBC’s Today programme. “The reason food companies use bogofs is because they know that with certain products if you use bulk buys, people buy more. They do the bogofs because they know people will end up eating more and spending more on those foods.
“With advertising, the ban is actually going to reduce the cost to food companies,” he added. “The cost of living argument is complete nonsense.”
Yet leaving aside his dubious conclusion that advertising doesn’t work, Dimbleby also admitted there is a snowball’s chance in hell of the government acting on the proposed measures in part two of his strategy, which calls for new taxes on products high in salt and sugar.
“I do accept that at the moment that’s quite a difficult concept to get across,” he said today.
The same applies to anything that can be linked to price rises. And there is little in the current financial forecasts to suggest that backdrop will change any time soon.
Indeed, the same political battle that has seen Johnson jettison the bogof ban and the watershed looks likely to be repeated with exactly the same result as we get nearer a future election. With stats for The Grocer showing multibuys are becoming an important part of supermarkets’ methods to keep prices down, the economic argument for scrapping the moves altogether will be compelling.
Health campaigners who point to the huge cost to society from the obesity crisis will have their work cut out to turn the tide – even though there are many who agree with them.