The Government’s “squeamishness” over tackling obesity will lead to higher taxes and lower productivity, a think tank has warned.
The Institute for Government (IfG) said every government since 1992 has missed targets to cut obesity, with an overall failure to prioritise the issue.
In a new report, it warns that rising UK obesity rates are harming people’s health, burdening the NHS and seriously damaging the economy.
The study said: “The UK’s efforts to tackle obesity have suffered from a combination of difficult politics – politicians worry about the perception of ‘nanny-statism’ and policies hitting poorer people harder – and low priority in government.
“Ministers have tended to focus on policies that are voluntary for businesses to comply with and emphasise individual responsibility, which have had little impact in the face of major changes in food systems.”
The IfG said that, with the exception of the sugar tax on soft drinks introduced in 2016, more ambitious policies “have often been avoided or delayed, despite there being strong public support for ambitious measures”.
In December, the Government announced that it was delaying a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm, to the dismay of health and obesity campaigners.
The new IfG report points to “at least” 14 government strategies on obesity, “containing hundreds of policies, and a succession of institutional reforms, with key agencies and teams created and then abolished”.
While the Government is still “nominally” committed to a target of halving childhood obesity by 2030 and increasing average healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035, it “has offered little indication of how it intends to meet either target”.
The report said obesity currently costs the NHS around £6.5 billion every year and “obesity-related ill-health reduces workforce productivity and places a heavy burden on the NHS”.
A failure to grip the problem now will result in higher taxes and spending, as well as increased inequality, it added.
“The UK has the third highest level of obesity in Europe, behind only Malta and Turkey. It is also third highest in the G7, behind only Canada and the US.
“While obesity has increased almost everywhere – driven by a combination of human biology and recent shifts in global food systems and lifestyles – its rise in the UK has been particularly steep.”
The report said the development of new weight-loss drugs like semaglutide “is promising but not a silver bullet” in tackling the problem.
The IfG called for action, saying none of the strategies developed over the last three decades has set out a “credible long-term goal”.
It added: “No departments currently prioritise obesity, the key interface between food and health policy is incoherent, and policymaking suffers from high turnover of ministers and officials and a lack of expertise.”
It should also create a new food and health policy unit, jointly owned by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and Department for Health, with responsibility for driving progress, and give the Food Standards Agency greater powers for scrutiny.
IfG report author Sophie Metcalfe said: “High obesity will lock the UK into a future of increasing ill-health and the Government has no plan to tackle it.
“It needs to build support for a long-term strategy which avoids telling people ‘what to eat’ but focuses instead on shared responsibility and a vision of healthier diets and more productive lives.”
The study said that, at present, estimates of the societal costs of obesity to the UK range between £29 billion and £58 billion (around 1%–2% of GDP).
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5 billion a year and is the second biggest cause of cancer.
“We are taking firm action to help people live healthier lives including, introducing restrictions on where unhealthy food is placed in supermarkets, calorie labelling on menus, and we work closely with industry to make it easier for people to make healthy food choices.
“Trials of new obesity treatments and technologies are being backed by £20 million of government funding, and we will introduce restrictions banning adverts on TV for foods and drinks high in fat, salt, or sugar before 9pm, as well as paid-for adverts online.”