Doctors in England to Be Offered Incentives to Help People Lose Weight

Peter Russell

July 27, 2020

A crackdown on the promotion of unhealthy food is at the centre of Government plans to tackle obesity in England after the "wake-up call" of COVID-19.

Ministers have announced that their strategy will include offering incentives to doctors to help people slim down and encourage GPs to prescribe exercise to boost fitness.

Being overweight or obese has been widely linked to a higher risk of serious illness and death from the coronavirus, which was underlined last week by a report from Public Health England (PHE). It cited one study that suggested a 40% increased risk of death for those with a body mass index (BMI) of 35-40.

Ministers say the pandemic has demonstrated the urgency of tackling the "obesity time bomb".

New Law Would Put Calorie Content on the Menu

Among the main measures of the Obesity Strategy, published by the Department of Health and Social Care, are:

  • A UK-wide ban on peak time TV and online adverts for foods high in fat, sugar, and salt

  • End of 'buy one get one free' (BOGOF) promotions of unhealthy foods high in salt, sugar, and fat

  • New laws to ensure that calories are displayed on menus

  • A consultation on displaying hidden 'liquid calories' on alcoholic drinks

  • A campaign to help people lose weight, get active, and eat better

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier.

"If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS."

Government figures show that 63% of adults in England are overweight or obese. Also, that 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese.

Obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £6 billion a year due to comorbidities.

However, COVID-19 has prompted the Government to act. Figures show that almost 8% of critically ill patients admitted to intensive care units with COVID-19 were morbidly obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population.

New Strategy to Target Overweight and Obese Adults

The package of measures unveiled today has shifted emphasis on how the Government plans to encourage weight loss. Previous ambitions that concentrated on tackling childhood obesity have been replaced with plans to target adult weight loss as well.

Following an analysis last year by Cancer Research UK that showed almost half of all food adverts shown on mainstream TV channels in one month were for products high in fat, sugar, and salt, ministers say they will ask Parliament to approve a ban on television and online ads for unhealthy foods before 9pm

New legislation would be drawn up to restrict BOGOF promotions and ban unhealthy foods from being displayed in prominent locations in stores.

Instead, shops would be encouraged to promote healthier choices and offer more discounts on fruit and vegetables.

New laws would also require large restaurants, cafes, and takeaways with more than 250 employees to add calorie labels to the food they sell.

The Government has also committed to launching a consultation before the end of 2020 on providing calorie labelling for alcohol after research found that 3.4 million adults consume an additional day's worth of calories each week through drinking alcohol.

Figures show many adults are consuming 200-300 extra calories a day above recommended daily guidelines, while children who are already overweight are consuming up to 500 calories more than they need every day.

Incentives for GPs

An expansion of weight management services will be ordered, along with acceleration of the NHS Diabetes Prevention programme. 

From next year, doctors will be offered incentives to ensure people who are obese are given support to lose weight.

GPs will also be encouraged to prescribe exercise and more social activities to help people keep fit.

Primary care staff will also be able to become 'healthy weight coaches' through training delivered by PHE.

'Better Health' Campaign by Public Health England

A 'Better Health' campaign, launched today by PHE, will encourage adults to attain a healthier weight, using free tools and apps to support people to eat better, drink less alcohol, and get active.

PHE said that while many people had used lockdown as an opportunity to change their habits and adopt healthier behaviours, over half the population has found it harder to stay healthy during this time.

The campaign will specifically target areas and groups most affected by obesity, excess weight, and COVID-19, including people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.

The measures have been broadly welcomed by health experts. Diabetes UK described them as "a significant step in the right direction", but only if they were implemented in full.

Reaction to the Obesity Strategy

Caroline Cerny from the Obesity Health Alliance commented: "The measures announced by the Government today – if enacted fully and swiftly – have the potential to create a healthier environment by taking the spotlight firmly off junk food and ensuring only healthier foods can be promoted on TV, online, and in our shops, as well as providing more support to help people manage their weight."

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) said the strategy "took significant strides forward". Andrew Goddard, RCP president, said: "The moves to reduce unhealthy product promotions and action on junk food advertising are welcome and will make a real difference.

"But we know that obesity is the result of biological, genetic, and social factors, and yet the strategy has not placed equal emphasis on responding to each of these. 

"There is a risk that we once again fall into the trap of mainly focusing on individual responsibility. We’ve been down this path before and it doesn't work. We know the key to success in addressing obesity and other health inequalities lies in shared responsibility between individuals and the state."

The Health Foundation doubted that the Government's plans would tackle the underlying causes of obesity. 

Adam Briggs, a senior policy fellow, said: "A credible strategy would go further to modify the environment and the circumstances in which we live - the multiple factors that shape whether we can be active or eat healthily. It would acknowledge the role of economic and social factors like poverty and unemployment that drive poor health and inequalities, and the impact of year-on-year cuts to local authority budgets. It would use the range of powerful levers that the Government has at its disposal to implement evidence-based practical solutions – from more space for cycling and walking to restricting fast food outlets near schools - which have broad public support. 
"Many of today’s announcements are not new ideas – they have been included in previous childhood obesity plans but never implemented. Too much time has already been lost, we must now see decisive action."


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