Junk food clampdown would be 'incredibly popular', says Henry Dimbleby

Henry Dimbleby - Christopher Pledger/The Telegraph
Henry Dimbleby - Christopher Pledger/The Telegraph

Red Wall voters are crying out for restrictions to “protect them” from junk food, the Government’s former food tsar has said.

Henry Dimbleby, who has just resigned as a government adviser, accused the Tories of “insane” inaction against obesity and suggested ministers were wrong to assume that nanny state measures would provoke a backlash.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Mr Dimbleby said polling conducted while officials were drawing up a national food strategy found strong support for a slew of restrictions, especially on junk food promotion.

Ministers have repeatedly delayed a proposed ban on such adverts before 9pm on TV and online, along with a ban on buy-one-get-one free deals.

Mr Dimbleby was appointed by the Government to carry out a review of England’s food system which called for an expansion of sugar taxes, to cover foods as well as drinks, and the introduction of a salt tax.

Both calls were dismissed in summer 2022 when ministers published a watered-down strategy.

Parents keen to see action for children

Mr Dimbleby, son of broadcaster David and co-founder of restaurant chain Leon, said ministers’ views were out of kilter with the public, particularly of those in Red Wall seats which have traditionally voted Labour.

He said parents were especially keen to see action to prevent obesity in children.

“People are actually slightly fed up with their children being marketed junk food. Advertising restrictions are very popular. So while on Twitter you get a small number of quite loud, free marketeers, actually people in general – and in those Red Wall seats in particular – like rules, and they like rules that protect them.

“They are quite happy for the Government to restrict the way in which junk food is marketed at them,” he said.

He said the polling was also “significantly positive” about sugar and salt taxes, suggesting that ministers were “wrong” to think it would have cost them at the ballot box.

“We thought it was definitely a doable policy that you would you be able to get over the line without making it electoral so I think they're wrong about that … I think they’ve read it wrong,” he said .

Mr Dimbleby said there was one area where the public was fiercely opposed to any attempt to change; anything that threatened the great British sausage.

“With any recommendations we were considering we would do focus groups, followed by quantitative research. The one that was fascinating was meat.

“Politicians will absolutely not say ‘you need to reduce the amount of meat you need to eat’. And for electoral reasons they are absolutely right to do that, regardless of whether you think they should be brave.

“It is a minefield; you bring it up in these focus groups and all hell breaks loose,” said Mr Dimbleby, who also said his concern was that such taxes were “regressive” and hit the poor hardest.

He said ministers were alive to the public mood on this.

His new book Ravenous, quotes a No 10 official, asked about the potential for a meat tax, saying: “We will not be imposing a meat tax on the great British banger or anything else.”

Mr Dimbleby, 52, was the lead non-executive director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until he left last week. he said he needed to be free to speak openly about its policies.

'These policies are incredibly popular'

He said an “ultra-free market ideology” was fuelling record rates of obesity, with two in three adults now overweight or obese.

Mr Dimbleby said ministers were “terrified of p------g off voters”.

“Actually they are wrong on this, these policies are incredibly popular, but you have to have skill to frame within your party to get it over the line,” he said, suggesting Sajid Javid – who resigned in summer 2022 – was the last health secretary to “get it” and be prepared to act.

He had planned a paper on health disparities while in post which was then ditched.

Mr Dimbleby said he was concerned that ministers would be prepared to roll out weight-loss drugs to millions of Britons rather than take action to prevent obesity.

Earlier this month, NHS watchdogs backed Wegovy, a new drug to regulate the body’s appetite, for tens of thousands of obese people with other health problems.

But health officials hope to go much further, with drug companies to be encouraged into a bidding war to drive down prices, so that NHS treatment can be offered to far more of the 12 million adults classed as obese.

Mr Dimbleby said: “Medicating millions of people isn’t something that should be taken lightly. Clearly these drugs can help people, but to work they likely have to be taken for life and we really don’t know about long-term consequences.

“To decide to medicate a significant portion of your population, rather than deal with the actual problem. strikes me as storing up problems for the future.”