Bill to curb junk food promotions scrapped by government amid fears for food industry

The Scottish Government has scrapped its proposed controversial legislation to restrict the promotions of junk food and drink products amid fears over the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the food and drink industry.

Promotions on junk food would have been curbed under the legislation, which has now been scrapped.

The government pledged in September to bring forward the bill - which would outlaw promotions on junk food – before the end of this parliament in a bid to curb Scotland’s obesity epidemic.

Obesity campaigners described the decision as “disappointing”, however food retailers welcomed the move, saying the bill would have had a “devastating economic impact” on small businesses. An editorial published today in the British Medical Journal claimed that the fast food industry should take some blame for the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, due to obesity being a major risk factor for serious illness.

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Lorraine Tulloch, programme lead of Obesity Action Scotland said: “This is disappointing news. While I understand that the food environment in Scotland has changed radically during the pandemic it has also become increasingly clear that people with obesity have had much worse outcomes from Covid-19, with an increased risk of being admitted to intensive care and of dying.

“If we want to secure the health, resilience and longevity of the people of Scotland then tackling overweight and obesity must be a priority. Obesity Action Scotland called on Scottish Government to redouble its efforts to tackle obesity in the recovery phase and this step will hold up progress. I would urge the Scottish Government to re-introduce this measure as soon as possible.”

She added: “Whilst the industry has stepped up to the mark in the supply and distribution of food during this pandemic they need to show the same leadership and responsibility in keeping our population healthy by stopping promotions of unhealthy foods and promoting healthy options.”

The BMJ editorial said that increasing evidence is now demonstrating that obesity is a risk factor for more severe illness and death from COVID-19. It said that in the UK, individuals who were overweight or obese made up 78 per cent of the confirmed COVID-19 infections and 62 per cent of the COVID-19 deaths in hospitals. Meanwhile, obesity leads to larger quantities of ACE2 in the body – the enzyme exploited by the virus for cell entry; diminishes the immune response and reduces lung function.

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s cancer prevention expert, based at the University of Edinburgh, said that obesity is linked to 13 types of cancers and called for the Scottish Government to reinstate the bill as soon as possible.

She said: “Junk food price promotions encourage shoppers to stock up on unhealthy items so it’s vital we see progress to restrict these harmful offers.

“One of the consequences of lockdown has also been that some people are eating more and moving less. There’s also worrying evidence that suggests that COVID-19 affects those who are obese more severely.

“The Bill on Restricting Foods Promotions is an opportunity for Scotland to be bold and become a world leader on improving public health. The Scottish Government must now set out a firm commitment and clear timeline for when things will get back on track.”

In answer to a parliamentary question from Paisley MSP George Adam, as to when the bill would be introduced, public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick said: “We are no longer planning to introduce the Restricting Foods Promotions Bill in this Parliament. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact, including on the food and drink and retail industries and on consumer behaviour. It is not yet clear what its long term impact will be. It is important we understand this fully and that we assess the economic and equality impacts of our proposed measures post-pandemic.

“Pausing the introduction of the Bill provides us with an opportunity to take stock. It enables us to take into account the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown, including on people’s diet and healthy weight. We will be able to consider fully whether a more wide-ranging Bill is required to tackle Scotland’s diet and weight problem after the pandemic.”

He added: “Tackling poor diet and overweight is a public health priority and remains a priority for this government. We are taking wide-ranging action to help people make healthier eating choices. As set out in our 2018 Diet and Healthy Weight Delivery Plan, our ambition is to halve childhood obesity by 2030 and significantly reduce diet-related health inequalities.

“We remain fully committed to restricting the promotion and marketing of foods high in fat, sugar or salt where they are sold to the public and will seek to progress this measure as soon as it is possible to do so. Work already underway to further improve the evidence base to underpin the proposals will continue. We will also continue to engage with the other administrations in the UK to explore the scope for the possible alignment of policy and legislation.”

David Thomson, chief executive of Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Scotland, said: “The Scottish Government has listened to FDF Scotland and our members’ concerns that these proposals would have had a devastating economic impact on smaller Scottish food businesses, who sell the majority of their products in Scotland.”

“Our food and drink manufacturers are facing increasingly difficult times due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis, as well as the uncertainty around the UK’s future trade deals with the EU and further afield. We call on the Scottish Government to continue to work with us to ensure our vital sector is supported to recover and prosper into the future.”

FDF Scotland’s Reformulation Project Manager, funded by the Scottish Government, is helping small to medium-sized food companies to make their products healthier.

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