But cost of living concerns means it keeps pushing back the legislation
The UK government wants to improve people’s health and decrease obesity rates, which are currently the highest in Europe. One way it thinks it can do this is via a new piece of legislation which would bar supermarkets from offering customers multibuy deals, such as ‘buy one get one free’ (BOGOF) on foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt, or sugar (HFSS foods). However, the government has delayed passing the law multiple times, including recently bumping its roll-out date from October 2023 to sometime in 2025, because of pushback about restricting cost-saving deals during a cost of living crisis.
There is well-founded concern about the economic and wellbeing toll that poor diets create. HFSS foods are associated with numerous health conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. They also cause weight gain, which in significant amounts causes substantial health issues of its own: obesity is the second highest cause of cancer. Poorer health needs more medical treatment, and it also tends to reduce how much people can work and do the things they enjoy. This hits their happiness on an individual level, and it also has societal impacts. More government revenue has to be diverted to pay for larger NHS bills and more out-of-work welfare. That means more revenue needs to be raised (via higher taxes) or spending needs to be cut from other government programmes. Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5 billion a year, which is 4 percent of its total budget.
Some opponents of the BOGOF ban agree that the government needs to do something about junk food consumption, but think the bill is the wrong way to achieve its goals. Statistics from the government’s own health department suggested that banning HFSS promotions would only reduce the average person’s calorie intake by the equivalent of a single grape a day. That’s unlikely to move the needle on their health metrics. Financially, however, the bill would see households lose an average of £634 of savings a year. People may have to respond by cutting back on other things they need or want, especially if they are lower-income. The poorest households may also be more affected because they tend to spend a larger portion of their overall food budget on fatty, salty and sugary foods.
There is a second opposition strand, however, which is centred around a disagreement that it is the state’s role to interfere to this extent in the relationship between shopper and shop. A popular school of economic thought argues that ‘free markets’ (i.e. ones with no government regulation) create better outcomes because prices are set by supply (how much there is of something) and demand (how much desire there is to own that thing). Some people dislike the idea that a government should exert influence over personal choices like what they eat. Worriers about a ‘slippery slope’ point out that a great many of the things that bring people joy also come with health risks, from paintballing to wine tasting to casual sex. And people concerned about inequality argue that ploys to make unhealthy food more expensive could in practice mean only less well-off people have to embark on an unwanted health kick.
On the flip side, some supporters of the ban point out that humans can be fundamentally irrational creatures, who often find that our short-term actions don’t align well with our long-term wants. Our shopping habits can be a good example of this. Three in five Britons say they'd like to change their diet to make it healthier, and other studies have found that substantial chunks of people who buy unhealthy food such as takeaways and confectionary then regret buying it. From this perspective, perhaps we’d all be happier in the long term if there were fewer prominent shiny advertisements for KitKats to tempt us every time we step into Asda. (Indeed, the government has gone ahead with bans on overt junk food advertisements in stores.)
Another side of the debate thinks regulating away unhealthy behaviours is the wrong thing to focus on. They would prefer to see the government doing more to remove barriers to healthy behaviours. A 2018 study found that 1.2 million UK residents live in food deserts - areas where it is difficult to find affordable and accessible healthy food like fruits and vegetables. Similarly, many council-run sports centres have crumbled into disrepair or disappeared entirely since 2010, when the government implemented austerity measures that slashed local government budgets. The cost of living crisis is now providing a second financial whammy to these spaces. About a third of English council areas risk losing their leisure centres or seeing reduced services.
More government revenue could be raised and directed towards these problems. Of course, unlike with the junk food ban, it would require money to be spent upfront. But that spending should be at least partly offset by the savings made on things such as the NHS treatment payments.