Boris Bikes

The UK Tries a Bait and Switch Obesity Deal

That long-awaited day has arrived and the UK now has a brand new, shiny obesity deal. This “world-leading plan” aims to help people lose weight, beat the coronavirus, and protect the NHS. It bans buy one, get one free deals on food. But apparently, bait and switch is A-OK, if it’s a public policy deal.

We say this because the UK government is selling a quick fix to an urgent problem with policies that will only ever have an effect over a very long term.

Get Active, Eat Less, Lose Weight

Honestly, nothing in this plan is especially surprising. And some of the ideas are positive. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is urging everyone to take part:

Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier. If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.

Of course, that’s all just window dressing that will have zero effect. People living with obesity have been there, done that. And we keep doing it. But most often, our best efforts to eat less and move more don’t reverse the physiology of obesity. Not in a sustainable way.

The more substantive part of the plan is an effort to rewrite the rules for food marketing. It restricts the advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods. It adds new labeling requirements for both food and alcohol. It will expand weight management services in the NHS. GPs will get incentives to prescribe physical activity and “ensure that people living with obesity are given support for weight loss.”

Boris bikes will surely get a big boost.

But Seriously

At the end of the day, though, this is a big bait and switch obesity deal. The promise is a big bold initiative to transform the UK into a fit and healthy nation. But the measures in the plan will have only subtle long-term effects – if they have any at all. Reforming food marketing is not an overnight exercise. It might be needed, but nobody has yet shown how to do it in a way that will indeed benefit public health. It will require patience and smart experimentation.

Promoting physical activity and healthy eating is something on the lips of everybody who talks about personal health already. But admonitions to eat healthy and move more have not had any discernible effect on public health.

Meanwhile the plan is very thin on actually providing access to obesity care proven to improve the health of people living with obesity. The most effective treatment for obesity – bariatric surgery – is woefully unavailable in the NHS. Evidence-based medical care for obesity is almost non-existent in the NHS.

This plan offers no hint of any change in this deplorable fact.

Instead, we have a plan that might have subtle effects over many years if policymakers pay attention and stay committed to doing more and better over time. The bikes are nice, but they won’t cure the obesity that plagues the UK.

This obesity deal is classic bait and switch.

Click here for the UK government press release on this shiny new plan, here and here for further reporting.

Boris Bikes, photograph © Les Haines / flickr

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July 27, 2020