Press Story

Simple wrappers and TV ad restrictions for unhealthy food and drinks among measures urged to combat ‘major’ threat of preventable disease

Sweets, crisps and sugary drinks need to be put on a level playing-field with fruit and vegetables if the UK is to win the battle against preventable diseases, a leading think tank says today.

They should be wrapped in plain packaging to reduce the numbers of people whose health is jeopardised by consuming unhealthy snacks and fizzy drinks, according to a report by IPPR.

The proposal is among a series of radical measures to combat what the think tank terms the “major risks” of preventable diseases, responsible for over half the disease burden in England and almost one in five deaths. The report also calls an end to day-time TV advertising of confectionary, and for the minimum smoking age to be raised to 21.

It follows research which shows that two decades of progress in reducing the impact of preventable disease on public health – measured in DALYs, or disability-affected life years – has stalled since 2012.

The IPPR report, Ending the Blame Game: The case for a new approach to public health and prevention, identifies smoking, obesity and alcohol and substance abuse as three main contributors to preventable disease, and calls for:

  • Plain packaging on sweets and other confectionary, sugary drinks and crisps, in a challenge to the power of corporate manufacturers. This would create a “level playing field” with unbranded fruit and vegetables and mirrors the action taken against smoking, without affecting the availability of confectionary.
  • A ban on TV advertising for fast food, soft drinks, confectionary and other processed food before the 9pm “watershed”, with tighter regulation of advertising in public spaces.
  • Extending the current sugar levy on fizzy drinks to cakes, confectionary and other sweetened drinks, with the proceeds invested in physical education and local sports facilities.
  • Community cookery classes, paid for by large supermarkets through a levy on their profits.
  • Raising the legal smoking age to 21, emulating US counties which found that this led to a greater decline in youth smoking – with the aim of creating a smoke-free generation.

Current spending on disease prevention amounts to only 5 per cent of the total NHS budget. The NHS Long-Term Plan published earlier this year makes prevention a core objective and the government has committed to publishing a green paper on prevention soon.

The IPPR report argues that public authorities are responsible for creating an environment where individuals are helped to make healthier choices to avoid preventable diseases, in a shift towards a more collective approach to public health.

It points out that failing to prevent ill health places a greater burden on poorer communities, with children born in the most deprived areas of England likely to enjoy 51 years of good health, compared with 70 years for those born in affluent areas.

Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, welcomed the plain packaging proposal, saying:

“This new proposal from IPPR learns lessons from tobacco control. It has potential to be part of the solution to the obesity crisis and will be explored in my formal review of childhood obesity.”

Tom Kibasi, IPPR director, said:

“It’s time to end the pro-obesity supermarkets by putting fruit and veg on a level playing field with crisps and confectionary. Plain packaging would help us all to make better choices and reduce the hassle of ‘pester power’ for busy parents.

“We need to get Britain off unhealthy takeaways and back to healthy home-cooked meals. That’s why we say big supermarkets should be made to pay for community cooking classes. Most people haven’t had a pay rise for a decade, so rather than punish people with higher taxes on food, we want to help Britain eat healthy, home-made food.”

Dean Hochlaf, IPPR Researcher and lead author of the report, said:

“Too many people, especially the most disadvantaged in society, are suffering unnecessarily from preventable ill health. We can and should have a robust prevention strategy to stop people falling ill – not just because people value their health and wellbeing, but also because it’s an essential part of creating a more prosperous and fairer society. The government are right to make this a priority – now we need action to back up their words.

“It’s widely understood that people have some personal responsibility for their behaviour, but that does not excuse government shirking its collective responsibility for safeguarding people’s health.”

Harry Quilter-Pinner, IPPR Senior Research Fellow and the report’s co-author, said:

“Following several decades of improvement, progress on tackling preventable illness and death has stalled. That comes at a cost to them, their families, the NHS and the country generally – yet it could have been avoided with a small increase in investment into disease prevention. We must never forget that the nation’s health is also the nation’s wealth.”



  1. The IPPR paper, “Ending the Blame Game: The case for a new approach to public health and prevention” by Dean Hochlaf, Harry Quilter-Pinner and Tom Kibasi, published on Tuesday June 4, 2019, is available for download at:
  2. Researchers developed an index to compare trends in DALYs (disability adjusted life years) per 100,000 people by risk factor. They found that the number of DALYs due to tobacco, dietary risks and metabolic risks fell steadily from 1990 to 2010 but that the reduction has stalled since then.

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3. The IPPR report does not directly attribute the 130,000 deaths that could have been averted to austerity. Preventable ill-health is caused by a complex mix of personal behaviours such as diet, smoking and drinking alcohol, as well as the wider social context such as poverty levels, housing and the environment. It is likely that changes in these factors have led to the slowdown in progress seen in recent years. Cuts to public services may well have contributed to this but the wider policy agenda will also have been a crucial factor. See Full Fact for further clarification.

4. The core public health grant to local authorities, among the key elements of preventative health spending, has fallen by £600 million from its peak of £2.9 billion in 2014/15.

5. The report is part of IPPR’s Better Health and Care programme, which builds on the work of the Lord Darzi Review, IPPR’s ground-breaking independent review of the NHS and social care, published in June 2018.

6. IPPR is the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank. With more than 40 staff in offices in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, IPPR is Britain’s only national think tank with a truly national presence.