In July 2020, the Government published its new obesity strategy, the Better Health campaign. Armed with his new shiny policies, Johnson called for a “summer of weight loss” and described obesity as “one of the greatest challenges we face as a country”. Only two years later, his Government pulled the plug on £100 million funding for tackling obesity.
The Tory Government’s Better Health campaign does nothing to confront the causes of obesity, given that tackling obesity requires a long-term change to one’s lifestyle, mental health, access to healthy food and confidence. For example, the Government announced that calories will now be displayed on menus to “help people make healthier choices”. 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and many millions more have experienced these illnesses in their lifetime. I believe that making calories on menus mandatory will stigmatise people and for those with eating disorders, it can contribute to harmful eating thoughts or behaviours. We know that counting calories can sometimes cause more harm than good. According to Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, there is also very limited evidence that such legislation will lead to changed eating habits among the general population.
Secondly, the Government wants to introduce a ban on TV and online advertisements for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm. This sounds good however, unsurprisingly there are loopholes. Brand-only advertising online and on TV will continue to be allowed. This means a company often associated with poor dietary habits, such as McDonald’s, will be able to advertise as long as no HFSS products appear. Brands will also be allowed to continue to promote their products on their own websites and social media accounts. SMEs will still be allowed to advertise junk food products and the ban will not apply to audio media, such as podcasts and radios, or the out-of-home sector, which includes outdoor billboards or advertising posters. So how effective is this policy when there are already so many exemptions?
Lastly, the Government has completed skipped over the most important key to tackling obesity – exercise and lifestyle. We know that regular exercise has incredible benefits for mental health, losing weight, and overall fitness. Over the last 12 years, the Tory Government has cut budgets from local authorities, meaning many council-run leisure centres are now privately owned, or include a private stakeholder. This has meant that the cost of gym membership, even for a local leisure centre, has soared and is unaffordable for many families.
Instead, the Government should be investing in affordable and accessible leisure centres, building new parks and encouraging small lifestyle changes. It should also be investing in local community groups so that they can organise diverse fitness sessions – how about skateboarding, swimming, boxing, rock-climbing, or Zumba classes run by your local library group, or church or mosque, or even a group of neighbours?
As the proud Chair of the APPG on Swimming, I have passionately campaigned on issues surrounding school swimming and access to affordable swimming lessons, as well as to promoting the restoration of swimming baths and the uptake of outdoor swimming and water safety. Unfortunately, after more than a decade of Tory austerity and severe cuts to council budgets, we have a seen a continued decrease of children in swimming classes, especially children from low-income families. During the pandemic, a record number of pools have closed and currently, there is a shortage of 8,000 swimming teachers. It is vital that councils have enough funds to hire teachers and maintain pool conditions to prevent unnecessary closures. This change can only come from central government, and action is needed now. You can read more about my APPG work here.
Furthermore, I supported residents with their campaign against new charges at Hampstead Heath Ponds in May 2021. I’ve always supported voluntary – not compulsory – charges and have repeatedly raised my concerns with the City of London about the impact of their new charging scheme particularly for regular swimmers on low-incomes. Our ponds are precious and should be open to all – nobody should be priced out of the great outdoors.
The Tories are obsessed with counting calories and fat-shaming the public. The Better Health campaign says it wants “a new focus on empowering adults to lose weight”. Tackling the underlying causes of obesity and creating healthy relationships with food isn’t solved by gimmicks that risk doing more harm than good. This is just another ineffective Tory campaign with weak policies that won’t make a difference to people’s daily lives. Let’s start by making exercise affordable, local and fun.