Action on Sugar says UK’s oral health likely to worsen following COVID-19

Action on Sugar said COVID-19 has led to popular companies heavily advertising and promoting their unhealthy food and drink products – but little has been done to curb itA campaign group has slammed big brands for capitalising off the back of the lockdown as it states the pandemic is likely to impact on the nation’s oral health. 

Action on Sugar said COVID-19 has led to popular companies heavily advertising unhealthy food and drink products – but little has been done to curb it.

This follows the delay of a report on sugar reduction within the confectionary sector, which has been held up as a result of the pandemic.

Progress by manufacturers has stalled against the Public Health England set target of 20% in voluntary cuts by 2020.

Katharine Jenner, nutritionist and campaign director at Action on Sugar, said COVID-19 could mean certain risk factors lead to worse oral health outcomes.

‘With many of us now self-isolating from home, the temptation is even greater to grab quick and easy snacks. We may also give them to our children much more frequently. But many of these foods and drinks are high in saturated fat, sugars and salt,’ she said.

‘Given the current exercise restriction, it makes it even more difficult to maintain a healthy weight. Not being able to visit a dentist or having school-supervised brushing is also likely to impact on future dental health.

‘Emerging scientific evidence from this pandemic shows that those from poorer backgrounds are being hit the hardest. Nutritional deficiencies, obesity, tooth decay and related health conditions – which are strongly linked to social deprivation – could be risk factors for worse outcomes of COVID-19.’

Damaging effects

She criticised the government for doing little to combat the promotion of unhealthy foods during lockdown. Now, she calls on businesses to band together to remove unhealthy advertising.

‘There is comprehensive evidence showing the harmful effect of unhealthy food and drink advertising,’ she said.

‘During lockdown, certain food companies, including big brands, fast food and delivery businesses have been capitalising on the government’s ‘stay home’ message by heavily promoting unhealthy food.

‘The most vulnerable members of society are now a captive audience. They have little opportunity to leave the house, exercise, and of course, to visit a dentist.

‘We are now are calling for the British food and drink industry to unite in the interests of public health. Through a voluntary ‘moratorium’, they should remove all forms of unhealthy advertising across all media platforms until the 5 June – or until all lockdown restrictions have been lifted.’

She added: ‘Obesity and type 2 diabetes are widely regarded as two of the nation’s most pressing public health issues, in addition to tooth decay.’Yet, the promotion of unhealthy food, although acknowledged as an important issue by the government, continues unabated. There is little or no regard to the damaging effect this is having on people’s long-term health (and wallets).’

Cut costs and save lives

Katharine pinpoints a number of actions she believes need to be taken to improve oral health:

  • Mandated targets to reduce not only sugars but also salt and saturated fat – particularly given the slow response by certain food and drink manufacturers to the current voluntary reformulation programmes
  • While the various sugar reduction approaches suggested by the government should by now be a ‘given’, we must not ignore the other crucial factors that would also cut costs and save lives. These include escalating and extending the Soft Drink Industry Levy to sugary milk-based drinks and to other harmful categories. This not only drives reformulation but raises essential revenue for valuable children’s’ services
  • A calorie levy on all energy dense processed foods should be introduced that meets an agreed criteria set by government
  • Front of pack uniform colour-coded nutrition labelling
  • Only allowing healthy products to be marketed and promoted.

She said: ‘Sugar reformulation and calorie reduction is of huge importance in tackling the UK’s obesity and dental crisis. We need the whole food and drink industry to step up, especially businesses that have taken little or no action.’

Unnecessary pain

The Dental Wellness Trust agrees that more needs to be done to tackle the side effects of the lockdown.

Speaking for the charity, Dr Saul Konviser said: ‘As the UK is currently facing the biggest public health crisis of a generation, we should not forget another ongoing public health crisis – and that’s tooth decay.

‘During lockdown, the health minister has been urging people to take ‘greater responsibility’ for taking the strain off the NHS. But what about food and drink manufacturers who continue to produce high sugar products? This is contributing significantly to the UK’s child oral health crisis.

‘Dental practices remain closed and children continue to endure unnecessary pain and suffering. Surely more can be done to tackle this wholly preventable disease?’

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