A woman selects bakery items in a supermarket.

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Health campaigners have reacted with dismay at the government’s latest delay to its ban of multibuy deals for foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS).

The policy had already seen its original start date last year bumped back to next October, which received a backlash from health charity groups at the time.

In a statement released on Saturday (17 June), the government confirmed it has now decided to postpone the launch of volume price promotions restrictions – affecting the likes of buy one get one free offers on junk food – for another two years until October 2025.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salts swiftly condemned the move. “Scrapping the already delayed multi-buy price promotions policy, which is part of the Government’s own evidence-based childhood obesity strategy, would be unforgivable – especially given two thirds of adults are living with overweight or obesity and putting real pressure on the NHS,” he said.

“The Government’s own data shows these promotions cause people to spend 20% more than they intended, so why would the Government not want to address this and make it easier for families to buy healthier food instead? Otherwise, it will exacerbate the already widening health inequalities by making healthier nutritious food less accessible to those who need it most,” MacGregor added.

In addition, Obesity Health Alliance director Katharine Jenner said they were strongly urging the government to follow the evidence and allow the restrictions to come into force in October 2023 as planned. “Without doubt, multi-buy price promotions do not save people money,” she noted. “Instead, they encourage people to impulsively buy more unhealthy food, rather than make savings from food already on their shopping list.”

Jenner argued that if ministers were serious about their ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, then the policy should be seen as vital. “Otherwise”, she warned, “excess weight will continue to drive unacceptable inequalities in health outcomes whilst costing the NHS a staggering £6.5 billion annually on diet-related ill-health – piling pressure on the NHS and driving down economic productivity.”

The government stated the reason for its delay extension was to allow it to ‘continue to review the impact of the restrictions on the consumers and businesses in light of the unprecedented global economic situation’.

Higher-than-expected global energy and goods prices had affected economies across the world, leading to increased costs across supply chains, it noted, with the delay allowing shoppers to continue taking advantage of multibuy offers on all foods.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak was quoted in the statement as saying he firmly believed in “people’s right to choose” at a time when household budgets were under continuing pressure from the global rise in food prices. For this reason, he noted it was “not fair for government to restrict the options available to consumers on their weekly shop”.

Kate Halliwell, chief scientific officer at the Food and Drink Federation, welcomed the government’s “pragmatism during the cost of living crisis”, saying the delay “made sense” at a time when both families and manufacturers were struggling with high inflation. She added the restrictions “risked further stretching already pressed household budgets”.

Halliwell had previously embraced the government’s similar decision last December to push back its ban on HFSS food ads, noting it would take time for the industry to prepare for the change in the law.

Meanwhile, Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay claimed the government remained committed to cutting waiting lists by tackling obesity, which “costs the NHS around £6.5 billion a year and is the second biggest cause of cancer”.

Addressing obesity remains a priority for government, added Barclay, highlighting their rollout of a new generation of obesity drugs to support people to lose weight and reduce pressure on hospitals.

The health chief also listed further action including introducing calorie labelling on menus, restrictions on the location of unhealthy foods in retail shops, introducing the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, and investment to boost school sport to help children and young people have an active start to life.