Boris Johnson has been accused of “playing politics with children’s health” after a government U-turn on plans to restrict junk food advertising and multibuy promotions.
The prime minister announced plans for a crackdown on foods with high fat, salt or sugar content after his own brush with death from Covid in 2020, which he blamed in part on his own excessive weight.
But the Department of Health today announced a one-year delay to the proposed ban on buy-one-get-one-free (Bogof) deals for unhealthy foods, as well as a 9pm watershed for TV ads, with rumours in Westminster that the plan will eventually be ditched altogether.
Campaigners fear that Mr Johnson has caved in to pressure from backbench Tory MPs, who deride the measures as “nanny state” meddling – and who hold his future in their hands following the scandal over lockdown-busting parties at No 10.
They argue that banning Bogof and three-for-two deals will simply increase pressure on families’ budgets during the cost of living crisis.
But the Children’s Food Campaign said that there was clear evidence from years of studies that Bogof deals on junk food do not save consumers money, but simply drive up the quantity of unhealthy products bought.
The campaign’s Barbara Crowther said: “Obesity is spiking and millions of families can’t afford to put proper food on the table.
“Multibuy offers make people spend more on junk and less on healthy food. This delay threatens the UK target to halve childhood obesity by 2030. Boris is playing politics with our children’s health.”
And Mr Johnson’s own food tsar, Leon Restaurants founder Henry Dimbleby, told The Independent: “If Bogofs are a solution to the cost of living crisis, God help us.
“If food companies want to help with the cost of living they could simply halve the price of junk food. “They do Bogofs because they know that they increase the amount purchased and eaten. They increase household spend. It’s called the ‘consumption effect’ and it is part of the basic training of food marketeers.”
Caroline Cerny, of the Obesity Health Alliance, described the one-year delay as “a shocking U-turn by the government that will have severe ramifications for children’s health and fatally undermine any further efforts to address health disparities”.
With child obesity at a “devastating all-time high”, restricting TV ads for junk food would on its own significantly reduce the number of children with excessive weight, she said.
“Big challenges, like child obesity, need bold leadership, not a government that shirks its responsibility and continues to let unscrupulous food companies bombard us with advertising and fake bargains at the expense of our health,” said Ms Cerny. “We urge Boris Johnson to remember the promise he made to make it easier for everyone to be healthier and reverse this abysmal decision.”
Announcing plans for restrictions on junk food marketing in 2020, Mr Johnson said: “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.”
He had earlier said that his spell in intensive care with Covid-19 had made him more aware of the need to improve his own diet and to exercise more.
But he is known to have been advised since by elections guru David Canzini to “get the barnacles off the boat” by dumping policies which do not fit with the core Conservative message he will offer in the 2024 general election.
And the Department of Health today said that a one-year delay on multibuy restrictions, which had been due to come into effect from October, would allow the government to “review and monitor” their impact on the cost of living.
The ban on pre-watershed TV ads and paid-for adverts online will also be paused for a year until January 2024 due to “a growing recognition that the industry needs more time to prepare”, said the department.
A clampdown on the placement of unhealthy items like sweets at supermarket checkouts and aisle ends will go ahead in October this year as planned.
Public health minister Maggie Throup said: “We’re committed to doing everything we can to help people live healthier lives. 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.”
But Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said that delaying the other policies was “incredibly concerning” and that curbing price promotions was “one of the policies critical to reducing obesity, the second-biggest preventable cause of cancer”.
The shadow public health minister Andrew Gwynne said: “Boris Johnson’s desperation to cling onto his job means the ideology of Conservative MPs is being placed above children’s health.
“Instead of cutting childhood obesity, preventing ill-health and easing pressure on the NHS, this chaotic government is performing another U-turn.”