Boris Johnson has shelved plans to ban multibuy deals on unhealthy food in supermarkets after concluding that it would hit British consumers’ wallets during a broader cost of living crisis.
The U-turn prompted immediate condemnation from health experts who said it would undermine the UK government’s efforts to tackle obesity — which puts an enormous strain on the NHS.
The prime minister had drawn up multiple bans — on “Bogofs” (buy-one get one free deals), free soft drink refills and advertising junk food on television and the internet — in 2020 as part of a sweeping anti-obesity strategy.
At the time, Johnson proclaimed that he had become a convert to tackling obesity after realising he was “too fat” when he became seriously ill with Covid-19 a few months earlier.
But on Saturday, Downing Street said the restrictions would be delayed for a year in light of the “unprecedented global economic situation” and to give industry more time to prepare.
The restrictions on Bogofs and adverts would have applied to foods high in fat, salt or sugar.
However, the government said it would still push ahead with new rules limiting the location of unhealthy foods in shops from October. Those products will no longer be allowed in high-prominence locations such as checkouts, store entrances, aisle ends and their online equivalents.
The Financial Times reported the looming U-turn in February, citing Johnson’s concerns about “nanny state interventions”.
Since then, Downing Street has become increasingly concerned about the “cost of living crisis” with energy bills soaring — and made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The price of groceries has risen by almost 6 per cent in the past 12 months and general inflation is expected to hit 10 per cent later this year.
The move comes amid a wider drive led by David Canzini, the new deputy chief of staff in Number 10, to drop measures perceived as “anti-business” or “un-conservative”. That approach has led to delays in reforms to the audit industry, professional football and internet regulation.
“The delay to restrictions on multibuy deals will allow the government to review and monitor the impact of the restrictions on the cost of living in light of an unprecedented global economic situation,” Downing Street said.
Meanwhile, the restrictions banning adverts for unhealthy food on TV before 9pm and paid-for adverts online will be paused for a year while the government launches a fresh consultation.
Maggie Throup, public health minister, said pausing restrictions on cheap deals would allow the government to better understand its impact on consumers.
But Lord James Bethell, who was a Conservative health minister until last year, said the obesity strategy was critical to many of the government’s health objectives. Ditching the measures was “totally un-Conservative”, he said.
The government insisted it was still committed to tackling obesity. It pointed to the introduction last month of new compulsory calorie labelling in large restaurants, cafés and takeaways.
But Rachel Batterham, special adviser on obesity at the Royal College of Physicians, said the delays posed a “significant threat” to the future health of the nation.
“This is incredibly disappointing and short-sighted, especially in light of the recent World Health Organization report showing that only in the United States is the level of obesity higher than in Europe. These aggressive marketing practices only benefit manufacturers and have led to one in five children leaving primary school with obesity,” she said.
“Many have cited the cost of living crisis as a reason to keep buy-one-get-one-free deals, but research is clear they do not save us money — they simply encourage us to spend more of it. And delaying the 9pm watershed for advertising unhealthy foods will leave our children vulnerable to developing long-term unhealthy eating habits.”