YesYou really couldn’t catch up. Once again, the government has gotten itself into serious trouble. This time he backtracked on his promise to make children‘s health a priority, blowing a huge hole in his own obesity strategy that at one point seemed genuinely progressive and even world-leading.
Let’s take a closer look at what just happened. At a time when childhood obesity has seen the biggest annual spike since records began, and children from low-income families are twice as likely to be obese, Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, have backtracked on central policies in their own strategy against obesity. They delayed banning junk food advertising and multi-buy supermarket deals. These policies only recently came into effect – in the case of the advertising restrictions they passed in parliament only last month.
Have no doubt that these policies would have a profound impact on children’s health. Ad restrictions work. A recent peer-reviewed study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has shown that thanks to restrictions imposed by the Mayor of London on the advertising of junk food on the capital’s buses and Tubes, families are now buying 1,000 fewer calories per week from foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
These policies are also very popular with the public – a recent poll by ComRes found that 74% of respondents support ad restrictions. Measures to stop the promotion of junk food are also supported by doctors, nurses, health experts and charities. My recent open letter to the prime minister asking him to reverse his U-turn has been signed by more than 30 organisations, including Cancer Research and the British Heart Foundation. And it doesn’t stop there – these policies are supported by members of his own party, including William The Hague; former ministers of health Lord Bethell and Steve Brine; and “red wall” deputies such as Jo Gideon. According to Hague, the prime minister was torpedoed to push back on junk food marketing restrictions by a tiny minority of Tory backbenchers who threatened to put in letters of no confidence if he didn’t. What a waste of Eton this is, as critical child health policies are decided by a cabal that now appears to have the PM in its pocket.
The bogus reasons the government has given for these glaring policy reversals are that they will help deal with the cost of living crisis and they will also help businesses. The government knows full well that none of these things are true. Why? Because his own research shows that these policies won’t save families money, and multiple purchases are carefully designed to entice people to spend more money (of course they are!), not less. . In fact, they encourage families to spend more on their weekly store. When it comes to restricting junk food advertising, preventing companies from marketing foods high in sugar, fat and salt to children has absolutely nothing to do with the cost of living.
Nor could the evidence be clearer that policies that are good for children’s health can also be good for business. Before transport to London advertising restrictions which came into force two years ago, the advertising and food industries thought they would be hit hard and advertising revenues would fall. What really happened? Food companies just started advertising their slightly healthier products and TfL’s ad revenue actually increased by £2.3 million This year.
So where do we go from here? In a few weeks, Johnson and Javid will try to sell us their shiny new white paper on health disparities. This is looking more and more like a bad joke. How could we take them seriously when just weeks earlier they renounced their own critical, evidence-based child health policies that took years to develop? It’s hard to imagine anything better designed to increase health disparities than this inert U-turn driven by political short-sightedness. And why do they think the small group of backbench MPs who have gouged a huge hole in their obesity strategy will allow them to include meaningful policies in their new white paper?
There’s still time for Johnson and Javid to do the right thing. I love Javid. I think he’s a decent human being, one of the good ones. Now he must step in and tell his boss to protect and promote the health of children. Propose measures that genuinely support those who are already struggling to feed themselves and their families well. Otherwise, the soon-to-be-launched white paper on health disparities and its recently launched cancer plan won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.