The Last Stand (Wales)

UK Obesity Plan: Will It Be Enough?

This week, the UK is taking even bolder action to reduce childhood obesity. A new obesity plan aims to cut England’s rate of childhood obesity in half by 2030. How, you ask? The answer involves marketing restrictions, restaurant calorie labeling, and a Daily Mile for primary students. All this comes on top of a sugary drinks tax that rolled out in April.

Marketing Restrictions

Under this plan, retailers face significant restrictions on marketing snacks and candy with high sugar, salt, and fat content. They may not stock checkout lines and store entries with such snacks. Nor can they offer buy-one-get-one deals. They cannot sell caffeinated energy drinks to children.

Upstream in the food chain, marketers cannot advertise junk food to children on television or the internet. UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says these moves will help parents:

It is near impossible to shield children from exposure to unhealthy foods. Parents are asking for help – we know that over three-quarters of parents find offers for sugary sweets and snacks at checkouts annoying. It’s our job to give power to parents to make healthier choices, and to make their life easier in doing so.

But food marketers gave this plan mixed reviews. Speaking for the UK Food and Drink Federation, Tom Rycroft said:

If government restricts our ability to advertise and promote new healthier options to shoppers, it could risk the success of the reformulation program.

No doubt, food marketing immerses both children and adults with food cues everywhere they turn. But public health officials might learn that bringing the marketing machine under control is not so simple. Adaptation is a core competency for marketing.

Restaurant Menu Labeling

Restaurants and cafés will have to implement clear and consistent menu calorie labeling. The theory is that people will make more informed, healthier choices with better information. Unfortunately, human behavior might not fall in line with that expectation. For years now, researchers have found no such benefit.

The Daily Mile

In addition, the government wants children to get more active with programs like the Daily Mile. No doubt, this will improve the health of children. But we know of nothing to suggest that it will go far toward cutting obesity rates in half.


A bold plan will always have its detractors. Professor Lord Darzi of Denham says this plan will fall short. For one thing, he says that the NHS isn’t investing enough in public health. He argues for fresh thinking and challenging old assumptions. Specifically, he calls out thinking that obesity is a disease of inadequate willpower. Though he welcomes the new plan, he calls it inadequate to the the challenge.

In the end, we conclude that the UK is conducting a large, uncontrolled experiment. Perhaps some of these measures will have an effect. We hope that serious public health scientists will objectively try to sort out the results.

It’s a shame to mount a big experiment unless we learn from it.

Click here, here, here, and here for more on the UK’s new plan. For more on Darzi’s proposals, click here and here.

The Last Stand (Wales), photograph © Carl Jones / flickr

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June 27, 2018