The Government’s decision to delay a ban on two-for-one offers on unhealthy and fattening foods could “blow a hole” in its obesity strategy, a former health minister has warned.
Ministers have said they are deferring the bar on buy one, get one free deals in England for a year so they can review the impact on family budgets in the face of the cost-of-living crisis.
A ban on TV adverts for foods and drinks high in fat, salt, or sugar (HFSS) before a 9pm watershed has also been put on hold for 12 months.
The move has been welcomed by the industry and by some Tory MPs opposed to the state interfering in how people spend their money, but it has alarmed health campaigners.
Lord Bethell, who piloted measures to bar multibuy deals before he was sacked as a health minister in last year’s reshuffle, said failure to tackle the “obesity crisis” would simply add to the costs of the NHS.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “I am concerned that it will blow a hole in the obesity strategy. That has a massive follow-on effect on all of our health targets.
“More people are getting cancer due to obesity-related effects. So the cancer 10-year plan, the extra five years of longevity and many more of our health targets are damaged by this.
“All of this illness that is caused by (being) overweight from junk food is being carried by the NHS and by the taxpayer. We do need to account for all of the costs of the obesity crisis in this country.”
Lord Bethell questioned whether ministers will now be able to go ahead with the ban in the current Parliament in the face of entrenched opposition within Conservative ranks.
“Parliamentary practicalities are that it will be extremely difficult to return to these measures before the next election,” he said.
“I’d like to take the Government at its word but naturally I am concerned that this is backing off the obesity strategy top to bottom.
“I think the Government really should be focusing its armour on trying to reduce the obesity crisis rather than playing to the choir.
“What we see in supermarkets at the moment is an arms race on junk food. That needs to change.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the ban on multibuy promotions will now come into effect in October 2023, while the bar on TV adverts before 9pm is delayed to January 2024.
Public health minister Maggie Throup insisted the Government remains determined to tackle the issue of childhood obesity.
“We’re committed to doing everything we can to help people live healthier lives,” she said.
“Pausing restrictions on deals like buy one, get one free will allow us to understand its impact on consumers in light of an unprecedented global economic situation.”
Industry body the Food and Drink Federation welcomed the “pragmatism” of the Government’s action.
Kate Halliwell, its chief scientific officer, said: “At a time when both families and our manufacturers are struggling with high inflation, it makes sense to delay the restrictions on volume promotions for everyday food and drink products, including breakfast cereals, ready meals and yoghurts, as it risked further stretching already-pressed household budgets.
“We also welcome the delay to the start of advertising restrictions, given the time it will take our industry to prepare for the change in law.”
The DHSC said restrictions on the placement of less healthy products in stores and supermarkets will still come into force this October as planned.
Last month, laws on calorie labelling in large restaurants, cafes and takeaways came into force.