New research has urged the UK to impose higher taxes or price rises on junk food to discourage people from consuming unhealthy foods, in order to tackle obesity in the country.
A report by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) found that Boris Johnson’s pleas to slim down in response to COVID-19, were ineffective and have not helped most people living with obesity to lose weight.
The report is calling on the government to impose restrictions on the marketing of junk food as part of its obesity strategy, improved food and drink labelling and an expansion of NHS weight management services.
Only 28% of people who describe themselves as living with obesity said they were taking steps to lose weight due to COVID-19, a survey conducted on behalf of the think tank found.
SMF’s report shows that while this is higher than the 20% of the general population taking steps to lose weight, it “still indicates that government messages on overweight and COVID-19 have done little to help people with obesity address their condition.”
Meanwhile, 37% of those living with obesity report they have not yet taken steps to lose weight, but are thinking about doing so. While 28% reported the coronavirus crisis would not lead them to lose weight.
“Warnings about COVID-19 risks and obesity are well-meaning but largely ineffective – they just aren’t enough to help people living with obesity and overweight take action on their weight,” Scott Corfe, SMF research director said.
The SMF has called on the government to undertake a “cost-benefit analysis” to set a target for the proportion of the population with obesity that would benefit from bariatric surgery and pharmacological interventions.
It highlights that at present, 0.2% of people in England eligible for weight loss surgery have received it. This is lower in comparison to other countries — 0.5% in Canada and 1.2% seen in the US.
The SMF says there is a lack of detail around “how and if the funding that is necessary to reduce obesity” will be provided.
“Without further financial support for local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups, it is unclear how local-level policy interventions can be implemented. Notably, the recent Spending Review made no mention of obesity or the Government’s obesity strategy,” the report said.
Watch: Why tax rises may be inevitable in Britain
Johnson who launched the government’s obesity strategy in the summer told people: “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.”
The PM said he became more passionate about the issue following his bout with COVID-19.
According to the SMF, ministers placed too much emphasis on “individual willpower and not enough on the environmental and economic aspects of obesity.” The report urges government officials to “do more” to tackle the stigma around obesity and educate the public on its multiple causes.
“The government should make clear that weight bias and obesity discrimination have no place in education or workplaces,” the SMF said.
Avideh Nazeri, director of clinical, medical & regulatory affairs at Novo Nordisk UK said: “The pandemic has underlined the urgent need for a better understanding of the science of obesity.”
“Obesity is influenced by many factors, including genetics, physiology and environment. Policies need to reflect its complexity to help prevent obesity and support people,” he added.
Instead SMF’s reports calls for new policies, such as adding calorie counts to alcoholic drinks and restaurant menus. The think tank says such measures “can be effective only insofar as people have the adequate levels of time, as well as the psychological and material resources to engage with them.”
It also criticised the government’s lack of “whole system” thinking around how the socioeconomic environment “contributes to obesity and overweight.”
To help the whole population, SMF’s report said bigger obstacles needed to be tackled, such as “food desserts” — regions of more than a million people where poverty, poor transport and a lack of large supermarkets limit access to cheap fruit and vegetables.
There is now a clear link between obesity and the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 and lockdown measures appear to have made it harder for some people to access resources and support to help them reduce their weight.
Among people with obesity surveyed in an SMF/Opinium poll — 27% said the pandemic led them to consuming a worse diet, while 31% said it had led them to exercise less.
Meanwhile, among those self-describing as having obesity, just over a third (35%) said they had a medical condition that makes weight loss difficult.
A separate study by the University of North Carolina, the Saudi Health Council and the World Bank shows that obesity increases the risk of a severe response to the coronavirus. With the risk of dying from COVID-19 increasing by nearly 50%. It could also make vaccines less effective, the study says.
Sarah Le Brocq, director of Obesity UK said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the lack of support people living with obesity have access to across the UK.
“Whilst the pandemic has highlighted the increased risk of severe consequences of COVID-19 for those people living with obesity, what it hasn’t done is show what the Government are trying to do to support those people. Whilst we know the obesity strategy was released in response to the pandemic, it focuses on population level activities and not those at greatest risk with a BMI over 40.”