The Government is to hand over the funding of its public health programme aimed at curbing obesity to food firms including Mars, Cadbury and Coca-Cola. Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, said public funding for the Change4Life campaign launched in January 2009 would be withdrawn and private firms invited to fill the gap, along with charities and local authorities.
In his first speech on public health, Mr Lansley said he was impressed by how much Change4life had achieved in promoting healthy lifestyles but was opposed to "burdensome regulation" of industry over matters such as food labelling.
"We need a new approach. We have to make Change4life less a government campaign, more a social movement... Less about costly advertising, more about supporting family and individual responses."
Health organisations reacted with disbelief. Betty McBride, director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation, said: "We wait with bated breath for the fast food merchants, chocolate bar makers and fizzy drink vendors to beat a path to the public health door. Meanwhile, parents and children continue to be faced with the bewildering kaleidoscope of confusing food labels and pre-watershed junk food ads."
Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said he was "horror-struck" at Mr Lansley's remarks. "[This is] nothing other than a bare-faced request for cash from a rich food and drink industry to bail out a cash-starved Department of Health campaign. The quid pro quo is that the Department gives industry an assurance that there will be no regulation or legislation over its activities."
"What the UK desperately needs are people willing to stand up to the food and drink lobby, such as Michelle Obama is doing in her anti-obesity campaign in the US, rather than politicians rolling over on their backs in front of the lobbyists as is apparently happening here."
The Department of Health said it had spent £50m since the launch of Change4life, which had the backing of food manufacturers and supermarkets. Mr Lansley said some had felt "stigmatised" for selling junk food, yet it was "perfectly possible to eat a bag of crisps, a Mars bar, or drink a carbonated soft drink" but do it in moderation. "Then you can begin to take responsibility for it and the companies selling these things to you, they can be part of that responsibility too," he said.