U.K. to restrict junk food advertising and promotions as COVID-19 has Boris Johnson changing tune on obesity

July 27, 2020, 3:07 PM UTC

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Boris Johnson, the U.K.’s rumpled Prime Minister, never used to be keen on governments poking their noses into people’s weight issues.

“The more the state tries to take responsibility for the problem, the less soluble the problem will become,” he wrote in 2004, back when he was just a member of Parliament, rebutting calls for the government of the day to combat obesity. “The more the state prescribes the diet of children, the more it takes away responsibility from parents.” A couple of years later, he targeted celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for campaigning to ban junk food from school meals, quipping: “If I was in charge I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like.”

How times change. Now in charge—and having narrowly survived an April bout of COVID-19 that put him in intensive care—Johnson wants people in England to slim down, in order to ward off the novel coronavirus.

Junk food ads will be banned before 9 p.m.—both on TV and online—and there will also be a ban on buy-one-get-one-free deals for sugary and fatty foods, under measures unveiled Monday. Stores will no longer be able to place candy by the checkout.

Large restaurant chains will have to start labeling calorie counts on their menus, and the government will consult on mandating the same for alcoholic drinks.

Public Health England is also launching a campaign that it hopes will persuade people to get more exercise, lose weight, and reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19 or other diseases associated with being overweight or obese.

“I’ve wanted to lose weight for ages, and like many people I struggle with my weight. I go up and down, but during the whole coronavirus epidemic and when I got it too, I realized how important it is not to be overweight,” Johnson wrote Sunday in the Daily Express.

“The facts are simple: Extra weight puts extra pressure on our organs and makes it harder to treat heart disease, cancer, and—as we have found—coronavirus. This was true in my case, and it’s true in many thousands of others. It was a wake-up call for me, and I want it to be a wake-up call for the whole country.”

As far as the food and drink sector is concerned, the government’s new crusade may be more of a rude awakening.

“As the economy struggles to recover, new restrictions on promoting and advertising everyday food and drink will increase the price of food, reduce consumer choice, and threaten jobs across the U.K.,” said Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer of the Food and Drink Federation, in a statement. “It is extraordinary that the government is proposing a ban on promotions of food and drink in retail at such a precarious economic time.”

The sector has been hit hard by the lockdown’s effect on the hospitality industry, which is projected to lose almost half of its $170 billion in annual sales this year.

Extraordinarily, the U.K. government will try to help restaurants and pubs in August by subsidizing people’s meals under the so-called Eat Out to Help Out scheme. According to Rycroft, the juxtaposition of this and the new healthier-food drive means the “government is pulling in different directions.”

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers is also livid, with director general Phil Smith calling the drive “a slap in the face for food and drink manufacturers, the advertising sector, and small business.

“This announcement cuts the legs out from the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, will cost families more at the checkout, denies small businesses the targeted local online advertising on which they now rely, and risks jobs at a time when government has elsewhere shown them support,” Smith said in a statement that claimed the strategy was “driven by the health lobby.”

However, there is evidence that the public will support the government’s crackdown on junk food promotions.

The U.K.’s Obesity Health Alliance conducted a poll in May that showed three-quarters of adults favored a pre–9 p.m. ban on junk food ads, and almost as many approved of a prospective checkout-candy ban. More than 60% agreed with the idea of banning supermarkets’ buy-one-get-one-free offers for unhealthy foods.

“We are delighted the government has recognized the role that the relentless marketing and promotion of unhealthy food plays in driving ill-health,” said the alliance’s chief, Caroline Cerny, in a Monday statement. “Restricting the advertising of unhealthy products before 9 p.m. is a landmark move and shows real commitment from the government to making it easier for everyone to be healthier.

“The pandemic has thrown the need to improve our health sharply into focus. We look forward to seeing more detail on the government’s proposals, and urge further action to build a healthier, stronger population.”

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