Sweets, crisps and sugary drinks should be treated like tobacco, according to a policy think tank, with plain packaging and a restriction on TV advertising.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is calling for radical new measures, including for fruit and vegetables to be put on a ‘level playing field’ with sugary treats and cigarettes, to combat preventable diseases. Among the measures the IPPR wants to see are a 9pm advert watershed for unhealthy foods, more funding for community sports and for the minimum smoking age to be raised from 16 to 21.

In a report called Ending the Blame Game: The case for a new approach to public health and prevention, the think tank urges a tougher stance, wanting sweets, crisps and sugary drinks to be wrapped in simple, unbranded packaging to put them on a par with fruit and veg. The measures aim to combat the ‘major threat’ of preventable disease, which is responsible for more than half the disease burden in England and almost one in five deaths.

The report follows research showing that two decades of progress in reducing the impact of preventable disease on public health has stalled since 2012, with smoking, obesity and alcohol and substance abuse as the three main contributors.

The IPPR wants:

  • Plain packaging on sweets, confectionery, sugary drinks and crisps, to challenge the power of corporate manufacturers and create a level playing field, mirroring the action taken against smoking.
  • A ban on TV advertising for fast food, soft drinks, confectionery and other processed food before the 9pm watershed, with tighter regulation of advertising in public spaces.
  • An extension of the current sugar levy on fizzy drinks to cakes, confectionery 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, as in some American states, where there has been a decline in youth smoking.

Current spending on disease prevention amounts to just five percent of the total NHS budget, although 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 in the near future.

The IPPR report argues that public authorities are responsible for creating an environment where people can make healthier choices, as well as highlighting the greater burden on poorer communities. Children born in the most deprived areas of England are likely to enjoy 51 years of good health, compared to 70 years for those born in affluent areas.

IPPR director Tom Kibasi said: “It’s time to end the pro-obesity supermarkets by putting fruit and veg on a level playing field with crisps and confectionery. 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.”

IPPR Senior Research Fellow Harry Quilter-Pinner, who co-wrote the report, added: “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.”

The Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, 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.”

Worrying NHS figures released last year showed that nine out of 10 UK adults are putting their health at risk by taking part in one or more of five behaviours, including eating an unhealthy diet and smoking. Leading an active lifestyle, reducing alcohol intake and not smoking can help to combat the risk of being diagnosed with a critical illness and aid recovery should you become ill, as well as lowering health insurance premiums.