Boris Johnson believes it will hit the wallets of UK consumers during the wider cost of living crisis, shelving plans to ban over-buy deals on unhealthy food in supermarkets.
The U-turn drew immediate condemnation from health experts, who said it would undermine the UK government’s efforts to tackle obesity – putting enormous pressure on the NHS.
The Prime Minister instituted a number of bans – ‘Bogofs’ (buy one get one free), free soft drink refills and advertising junk food On TV and the Internet – in 2020 as part of a comprehensive anti-obesity strategy.
At the time, Johnson claimed he had switched to tackling obesity after realizing he was “too fat” when he was seriously ill from Covid-19 a few months ago.
But on Saturday, Downing Street said restrictions would be delayed by a year and give the industry more time to prepare, given the “unprecedented global economic situation”.
Restrictions on Bogofs and advertising will apply to foods high in fat, salt or sugar.
However, the government said new rules restricting the placement of unhealthy food in stores would still be pushed forward from October. These products will no longer be permitted in prominent locations such as checkouts, store entrances, end of aisles and their online equivalents.
The FT reported on the looming U-turn in February, citing Johnson’s concerns that “Nanny State Intervention“.
Since then, Downing Street has grown increasingly concerned about a “cost of living crisis” triggered by soaring energy bills – made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Grocery prices have risen nearly 6% over the past 12 months, and headline inflation is expected to hit 10% later this year.
This move is made by David Canzini, No. 10’s new deputy chief of staff, to drop measures deemed “anti-commercial” or “non-conservative.” This practice has led to delays in reform of the auditing profession, professional football and internet regulation.
“Given the unprecedented global economic situation, postponing the restrictions on overbuy transactions will allow the government to review and monitor the impact of restrictions on the cost of living,” Downing Street said.
Meanwhile, a ban on unhealthy food ads and paid online advertising on TV before 9pm will be suspended for a year, while the government will launch a new consultation.
Public Health Minister Maggie Throup said the moratorium on cheap deals would allow the government to better understand its impact on consumers.
But Lord James Bethel, who was Conservative health minister until last year, said the obesity strategy was critical to many of the government’s health goals. He said it would be “completely unconservative” to drop the measures.
The government insists it remains committed to tackling obesity. It pointed to the introduction of new mandatory calorie labels in large restaurants, cafes and takeaways last month.
But Rachel Buttham, special adviser on obesity at the Royal College of Physicians, said the delays posed a “significant threat” to the country’s future health.
“This is incredibly disappointing and shortsighted, especially given the recent World Health Organization report showing that only the US has higher levels of obesity than Europe. These aggressive marketing practices will only benefit manufacturers and lead to one in five Children drop out of primary school because of obesity,” she said.
“Many people cite the cost of living crisis as a reason to keep buy-one-get-one deals, but research shows they’re not saving us money – they’re just encouraging us to spend more. Postponing the 9pm watershed to promote unhealthy foods will Make it easier for our children to develop long-term unhealthy eating habits.”