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Obesity is a physical condition in which a person is very overweight, with a lot of body fat. Policymakers have faced the difficult challenge of addressing increasing obesity prevalence; a complex issue affected by socioeconomic, cultural and geographical factors.

This paper covers the work of the UK Government in preventing and reducing obesity, which in recent years has greatly focussed on reducing obesity prevalence in children. A series of chapters from a childhood obesity plan have been the main developments: Childhood Obesity, A Plan for Action in August 2016, Childhood obesity: a plan for action, Chapter 2 in June 2018 and Chapter 3 as part of the July 2019 green paper, Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s.

Within these, the Government has introduced a number of measures aimed at reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity. These have generated a wide range of responses from stakeholders, who in some cases, have considered the measures too weak, or conversely, disproportionately restrictive.

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy

The soft drinks industry levy (SDIL), one of the Government’s better-known anti-obesity measures, was introduced in April 2018 and has been considered to have been effective in encouraging reformulation of products. For example, Public Health England (PHE) reported a 28.8% reduction in total sugar content per 100ml between 2015 and 2018 for the drinks subject to be included in the SDIL among retailer own brand and manufacturer branded products. There have been calls for it to be extended to sweetened milk-based drinks with added sugar.

Advertising restrictions

There has also been work on advertising, with the Government having consulted on introducing further restrictions on advertising products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). There has been strong support from children’s health campaigners for additional advertising restrictions, whilst industry bodies have urged the government to “avoid any decisions that might have a damaging impact on industry, but little or no effect on lowering obesity levels”. In February 2021 the Government announced its intention to introduce further restrictions on advertisements for products high in fat, sugar or salt being shown on TV before 9pm.

Covid-19 and obesity

In July 2020, months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government published its policy paper, Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives. In it, the Government expressed concern about the “consistent evidence that people who are overweight or living with obesity who contract coronavirus (Covid-19) are more likely to be admitted to hospital, to an intensive care unit and, sadly to die from Covid-19 compared to those of a healthy body weight”. The paper set out information about the link between Covid-19 and obesity, a new campaign encouraging people to achieve a healthier weight, initiatives designed to support people to make healthier choices and changes to children’s food advertising.

Further Reading

Social prescribing, Commons Library Briefing, CBP 8997, 2 September 2020

Obesity statistics, Commons Library Briefing, CBP 3336, 11 January 2021

Health inequalities: Income deprivation and north/south divides, Commons Library Insight, 22 January 2019

The effect of junk food advertising on obesity in children, Commons Library Debate Pack, CBP 0012, 15 January 2018

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy, Commons Library Briefing, CBP 7876, 12 April 2017

Childhood obesity: an inequality issue, Commons Library Insight, 5 September 2016

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