Credit: World Obesity Federation
Today, the UK Government launched a new strategy to tackle obesity.
A raft of measures – including restricting junk food marketing on TV and online, and promotions in-store – have been announced to help people get healthy, protect themselves against COVID-19 and protect the NHS. Some of these will apply UK-wide, and others just to England.
It’s been described as a ‘landmark day’ for the nation’s health, after years of campaigning by Cancer Research UK, our supporters, Obesity Health Alliance and the wider public health community.
Why is this important for cancer?
Overweight and obesity is the second biggest cause of cancer in the UK.
Obesity is a complex issue with many causes, but one of the biggest influences is the world we live in. The less healthy choice has become the easier, cheaper choice for the consumer, while advertising and marketing have become more sophisticated – creating an ‘obesogenic environment’.
Because of this, reducing obesity levels requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the environmental causes, improves availability of healthy options, empowers people to make and maintain healthier habits, and provides evidence-based treatment to those who need it.
We have always maintained that such an approach is achievable, provided there is the political will to enact the necessary policies. Successive governments have taken steps in the right direction, but until now the aspiration for the UK to be ‘world-leading’ has remained just that.
The size of the prize is significant. According to our estimates, around 1.3 million fewer children and teenagers in the UK would be overweight or obese if we matched the lowest overweight and obesity prevalence for these age groups in Europe.
The latest measures
One of the headline measures is a ban on TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm, something we’ve been campaigning on for many years.
Endless adverts and promotions for junk food give us cravings and normalise bad diets. And young people, in particular, find this marketing pervasive. Over 40% feel “under pressure” by such marketing, according to a 2018 report.
Read more: Our evidence on junk food marketing and childhood obesity
And these little pressures add up. Excess weight is often caused by consuming as little as 47-73 excess calories daily. And food marketing could lead to 50 extra calories daily, which is why we’re thrilled that the Government has announced a TV watershed and online restrictions.
This measure will also play an important role in helping to reduce health inequalities, as young people from more deprived backgrounds in UK are also more likely to be obese, consume a range of less healthy products and be exposed to junk food adverts.
Encouragingly the new measures will also push industry to focus on promoting healthier products in their place. And we know they can do it: our research found that most brands advertising unhealthy food and drink before 9pm made a healthier product they could advertise instead. The success of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy in driving reformulation also shows what is possible when brands and retailers are incentivised to do that too.
It may seem like a small change to some, but the 9pm watershed alone could lead to 160,000 healthier children in UK and a £7.4bn benefit to society.
That’s a big incentive to hold the government to this commitment, and it’s supported by 74% of the public.
It’s not over yet
The Government will hold a consultation later this year on how to introduce a total advertising ban on foods high in fat, sugar or salt online. Their intention is to implement both TV and online measures at the same time, by the end of 2022 at the latest.
But it isn’t quite a done deal. We know there will be a big push back from the advertising industry, but the evidence is strong. We need to maintain public and parliamentary pressure to make sure these measures don’t get watered down or forgotten.
The same is true for many of the other measures the Government announced as part of its obesity plan. In particular, there is work to ensure that important legislation is passed to restrict the promotion of less healthy food and drink, such as through ‘buy one get one free’ offers. These offers encourage people to spend more and consume more foods high in fat, salt or sugar than they otherwise would have.
We’ll also been keeping up pressure for these items to be removed from prominent locations in stores, such as at checkouts and entrances, and online.
Initiatives to help people find healthier options are also welcome additions and we look forward to them being implemented. From front-of-pack ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling, to calorie labelling for food sold in restaurants and takeaways, to alcohol calorie labelling – these measures will help make it easier for people to identify healthier food and drink.
The Government’s pledge to expand weight management services available through the NHS is also positive. As well as preventing future obesity, we need to support people to lose weight too. Though we hope to hear more on how local authorities will be provided with sustainable public health funding that ensures important public health and preventative services, including effective weight management services, are available to those who need them.
While there’s still a long way to go, this is a huge step forward from the Government and comes after years of campaigning from our supporters, e-campaigners and ambassadors, who have helped us make the case so effectively.
Together we have positively changed the obesity policy landscape in the UK, and, if delivered, that should have a positive and lasting impact on cancers related to excess weight in years to come.
Malcolm Clark is cancer prevention policy manager at Cancer Research UK
Find out more:
Elizabeth Benjamin August 16, 2020
I would like to take an active part in reducing obesity in children . How can I do that ?
Katie Roberts August 17, 2020
Thanks for your question about getting involved. You can support us by signing up to become one of our e-campaigners, where you’ll be sent quick and easy online actions you can take to influence the Government on a range of issues, including reducing obesity in children. You can also apply to become one of our campaigns ambassadors, who help us save lives by talking to politicians and persuading them to support better cancer policies, including cancer prevention.
There are lots of other ways to get involved in reducing childhood obesity with other organisations too. If you’re a parent, you can join Children’s Food Campaign’s Parent Jury. And you can find more ways to get involved on Bite Back 2030 website.
Katie, Cancer Research UK
Patrick Wynne-Jones August 12, 2020
One area which could achieve quick results would be a specific focus on consistency in contents marking i.e. mandatory use of the ‘traffic lights’ system( still avoided by some supermarkets), print in legible type size and consistency in referral to actual product content rather than misleading reference to RDA.
Don Chivers August 12, 2020
I agree more with educating people about the correct foods to eat rather than instructing shop keepers where to place their goods. For example if sweets don’t sell near the checkout they will be replaced.
Chris Robinson August 11, 2020
I really do not understand the need to include large corporation fast food chains in the eat out to help out scheme. Does McDonald’s really need help from the government and the tax payer? Their drive throughs have been grid locked since they re-opened, if anything their sales are probably up! It’s sending out the wrong message, on one hand they are saying loose weight to help fight COVID and prevent cancer and then dishing out half price junk food which is already cheap at full price at the cost of the tax payer. This scheme should be reserved for independents and restaurants that serve real food
Christine Read August 11, 2020
Great articles,thank you for all you do,as some one who has had breast Cancer and had such wonderful care and treatment and still is,I am so grateful,that’s why I sign and do anything I can for the progress of research and care for those going through Cancer now.
Chris August 4, 2020
I so agree with Louise. We really need to lower the cost of healthier option food items and ramp up the prices of the fast quick to prepare effortless easy cop out options that some families choose to adopt. Stop the tv dinner microwave mentality too as I find it quite astounding how many people find this quite a normal activity just waiting for the “ping” of the microwave to signify lunch/dinner is ‘ready’ You’ve only got to read the labels to realise this is NOT a healthy option. I also get annoyed that sweets are strategically placed at the check out in supermarkets to tempt and encourage that last little treat or TWO into the trolley!! Get this….YOU DONT NEED THEM
Norma Kann August 2, 2020
At long last a step in the right direction I am horrified when shopping to see the amount of junk food parents buy for their children. Good healthy fruit salads and lean protein taste even better
Louise August 2, 2020
You are still not listening!!
Why do you insist on price increase on high sugar/fat foods??
The way forward would be to massively reduce the price on healthy foods!!!!
Many healthy foods like fresh vegetables, fruit and salads have a short life span..
Make these cheaper..
By all means watershed the advertising as I totally agree children are so influenced..but for goodness sake STOP increasing prices..
We are inthe middle of a financial crisis..people are using food banks..
Stop lining the pockets of Starbucks and macdonalds ect by increasing the fat tax!!
REDUCE THE COST OF HEALTHY FOOD!!!
Sonia August 1, 2020
Stop agreeing for fast food shops to open ie burgers/kebab shops in small dwellings when they empty
Judith Roberts August 1, 2020
Really impressed with what you are saying but obesity and health problems are more prevalent in poorer sections of the community and we need to find out what problems they have eg getting to the shops etc.
Amy August 1, 2020
I’m pro choice and buy one get one free is usually a way of saving money and getting more..not necessarily eating more! I’m a healthy eater and although I agree some choices arent correct and can be influenced by advertising..maybe then there should be exercising and healthier influences entwined with those deemed unhealthy to counteract and balance? Been cycling to work instead of the bus since covid and eating less. Am a vegetarian but probably the most obese veggie in my town due to medication I am on which makes me hold onto weight. So it’s not just food and should be helping make healthy choices instead of enforcing taxes or price hikes please. Sometimes we need some pleasures even if it’s a small amount.
Isabelle Crawford July 31, 2020
I find the argument to lower sugar in drinks ridiculous – Just drink water! I never gave my five daughters fizzy drinks growing up. I made them a home cooked meal every evening which we ate together as a family. It is possible to cook from scratch cheaply and healthily – and freeze any leftovers for good food later. People need to be taught these basic skills at school and at home. It takes time and effort (I am a very busy full time GP and had four under fives and then another 6 years younger, so I do understand some of the obstacles) Good luck – you will feel better for even small changes.
June Lowe July 31, 2020
Cut out one snack a day and help yourself to prevent cancer, diabetes and all sorts of health problems
Julia Roberts July 31, 2020
Why not adverts and buy one get one free on healthy foods. These should be lowered in price. Alot comes down to money.
Katie Roberts August 4, 2020
Thanks for your question. As well as limiting junk food advertising and offers, we believe the new measures will also push industry to focus on promoting healthier products in their place. Our research found that most brands advertising unhealthy food and drink before 9pm made a healthier product they could advertise instead, and limiting ads for foods high in fat, salt or sugar will create space for advertising healthier products.
jo July 30, 2020
Would be wonderful but I’m on benefit cheap unhealthy food is about all I can afford. When its cheaper to buy 4 bars of chocolate than 2 apples there is something wrong! Salad etc is so expensive and unless I’m actually a rabbit living on my own it goes off before I can use it all!!
Tina July 30, 2020
Interesting but not much cop when no-one is willing to actually offer help with weight problems. Classed as obese, my GP won’t help, as also have hereditary Lymphoedema, so my weight can fluctuate by over a stone some days, having weighed myself in morning, then again that evening. I really need to lost about 2st
Nichola July 30, 2020
I work as a personal shopper and it surprises me how much prossed food people buy, I know it’s hard cooking from scratch, I do it every day (after work) and often have to make two different meals because my family don’t eat the same things but its important to me to know what we are eating, none of us have weight or health issues!
Shelley T July 30, 2020
I wish someone did this years ago. I became fat due to my ex and stress
I lost weight but not from dieting or exercise, I have Neuroendocrine cancer in my pancreas which can not be cured
Please carry on sending information out on this subject
Mrs Sandra beaty July 30, 2020
I think it is a great idea to take away sweets from the shop tills to stop children from eating too much high carb and good to stop adverts before 9pm
Sonya harvey July 30, 2020
I have melanoma stage 4 cancer I have 9 tumours in my body getting treatment hsve been a year next month but now one has started growing just a little bird scan next month to
Cheryl Ferguson July 30, 2020
Well Cancer runs in my family and some have survived and the other died it’s cruel I know but when you know about Cancer weather you have in or someone close to you has it you have to put on a brave face together we will beat Cancer xxx
Laura Suliman July 30, 2020
I was due to have Bariatric Surgery in July but this was cancelled due to COVID. I have had cancer twice I am extremely over weight and am suffering with server back and knee pains. I have no idea if or when this operation will happen now. My GP said she has no idea. I’m extremely disappointed, frustrated and depressed about this. So who can help me now?
Olu O Sanusi July 30, 2020
Excellent long overdue health strategy
William Nelder July 30, 2020
I am a amputee and considering purchasing a tri cycle to keep fit and lose weight. They are expensive. Can i get financial assistance?
grace brewster July 30, 2020
I’m 65 and had cancer 8 years ago and beaten it I want to buy a bike to get more healthy but my kids are against it as I have a habit of falling and hurting myself but the good new is that 2 years ago I started going to a gym class but since the virus I’m not as fit have started going for walks to help im so grateful for all the help and treatment that I received THANK YOU