Working to make government more effective


Tackling obesity: Improving policy making on food and health

Government squeamishness on tackling obesity will mean higher taxes and lower productivity.

A close up of a medical expert taking notes. On the desk is a plate with green vegetables, a blood pressure machine and a laptop.
Every government since 1992 has missed targets to reduce obesity.

This report reveals how every government since 1992 has missed targets to reduce obesity – with the UK’s rising obesity rates harming people’s health and life opportunities, burdening the NHS and damaging the economy.  

It exposes the reasons behind this policy failure – and sets out how to make progress.   

The report shows that tackling obesity has repeatedly suffered from ministers fearing the perception of nanny statism, despite there being strong public support for ambitious measures. Over three decades there have been at least 14 strategies, hundreds of policies, and a succession of institutional reforms, with key agencies and teams created and then abolished.  

Tackling obesity is not prioritised by the health department – which focuses overwhelmingly on the NHS – or other key departments, with the agenda suffering from an incoherent relationship between health and food policy, rapid turnover of ministers and officials, and a lack of expertise.   

This government has said it wants to reduce obesity and increase healthy life expectancy, but it has no serious plan to achieve that aim. A failure to grip the problem will result in higher taxes and spending, as well as increased regional inequality.   

The report shows that:    

  • The UK has the third highest obesity rate in Europe, behind only Malta and Turkey. Almost one in three adults are now classified as obese – an increase from one in 10 adults in 1970, which is a much bigger increase than seen in Germany, France and Italy.  
  • Obesity is heavily concentrated in the poorest areas, with the gap between rich and poor areas widening significantly in the last decade. Rates of obesity-related hospital episodes and bariatric surgery are around two and a half and four times higher respectively in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived.   
  • Obesity is set to be a major driver of inequalities in future generations. In the most deprived areas almost a third of primary school leavers have obesity compared with just 13.5% in the least deprived areas. 
  • Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5bn every year – and its wider societal costs, including in reduced productivity, are estimated at 1–2% GDP.  

The report calls for the government to learn from past mistakes, arguing it should:  

  • Develop a long-term obesity strategy, backed up by robust analysis and targets, with interim goals and measures to drive progress towards a credible long-term goal, learning from the way it is approaching net zero.   
  • Address the lack of joined up policy making by creating a new food and health policy unit, jointly owned by Defra and DHSC, charged with developing the strategy and driving progress.  
  • Legislate for the Food Standards Agency to provide independent scrutiny of progress, including by producing an annual review of the state of the nation’s food system diet and health to boost health to boost its profile in parliament and increase accountability for inaction.  


Related content

19 APR 2023 Hybrid event
19 April 2023

How can the government tackle obesity?

This event explored why successive governments have failed to address rising obesity and what would be needed to tackle it.

14 NOV 2022 Explainer

Sugar tax

The soft drinks industry levy (SDIL), or ‘sugar tax’, is a levy applied to UK-produced or imported soft drinks containing added sugar.