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Boris Johnson’s new tactic against coronavirus: urge Britons to lose weight

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who cited his own problems with obesity, said his hospitalisation with COVID-19 had prompted his push to tighten regulations on junk food.

July 28, 2020 / 11:42 AM IST
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Britain will crack down on junk food advertising and introduce calorie counts on menus in an effort to tackle obesity and ease the pressure on the country’s National Health Service amid the coronavirus pandemic, the government said Monday.

For the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, the intersection of obesity and the coronavirus is personal. Johnson was, by his own admission, “way overweight” when he was admitted to the hospital after becoming ill with COVID-19 this year, and his health deteriorated to such an extent that at one point he needed intensive care.

Studies have linked obesity to a greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, and Johnson, writing in the British newspaper The Daily Express, described his time in hospital as a “wake-up call.”

“We all put things off — I know I have,” Johnson wrote. “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,” he added.

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As part of the government’s new obesity strategy, advertisements for any food high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned on television and online until 9 p.m. to avoid hours when children are most likely to see them. There will also be a consultation on whether Britain should entirely ban online ads for junk food.

All large restaurants and cafes will be required to add a calorie count to their menus, and the government will look into adding calorie labels to alcoholic drinks.

Promotional offers like “buy one, get one free” on fatty or sugary foods will also be prohibited.

Obesity in Britain has long been cited as a growing problem and as a drain on the NHS, and the country is usually near the top of lists ranking Europe’s fattest countries.

Government statistics show almost two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese. The World Health Organization estimates that about 39% of adults worldwide are overweight and that around 13% are obese.

More than 45,000 people in Britain have died from the coronavirus. Nearly 8% of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, the British government said, even though morbidly obese people account for only 2.9% of the general population.

Johnson said in a video posted on Twitter on Monday that he had lost more than 14 pounds since his time in the hospital.

The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported that the prime minister weighed 245 pounds when he was hospitalized in April. Even with his recent slimming, Johnson, who is about 5 feet 10 inches tall, would still rank as obese, according to an NHS calculator, although the prime minister said he had only just started concentrating on building his fitness and losing weight.

The wide-ranging measures announced Monday are a change in tack for Johnson, who last year described a levy on sugary drinks as “sin stealth taxes” and warned of the “continuing creep of the nanny state.”

Professor Parveen Kumar, a spokeswoman for the British Medical Association, which represents doctors, said in a statement Monday that the strategy “could go a long way in kick-starting a health revolution for the nation.”

But the measures did not receive such a warm welcome from the food and retail industry. Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer at the Food and Drink Federation, a group representing manufacturers in the sector, called the plans a “punishing blow” for companies that had been “heralded by government for feeding the nation during the COVID crisis.”

The federation said that while it supported the government’s push for Britain to become healthier, the proposed policies had been shown to be ineffective and would serve only to raise prices.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

New York Times
first published: Jul 28, 2020 11:42 am