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The businessman who pioneered the Nectar card has been put at the centre of a new £100m government plan to tackle obesity through lifestyle changes.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) today announced a series of initiative to try to supply children and adults who are overweight or obese.

As part of the plan, Sir Keith Mills, who is also credited with launching the successful Airmiles reward scheme, has been appointed to advise on a new incentives and reward approach to try encouraging healthy behaviours.

The DHSC said the added risks of death from coronavirus to those with obesity had encouraged its move to put lifestyle at the heart of its obesity strategy.

Through Loyalty Management UK Mills launched the famous Nectar card in September 2002, and it was sold in December 2007 for £350m to the Canadian company Aeroplan, earning him a fortune.

He went on to become CEO and international president of the London 2012 Olympics campaign, when he worked closely with Boris Johnson, then the Mayor of London.

Ministers said he would support the government to develop “innovative approaches” with public and private partners that use incentives to help people make healthier choices.

Sky News reported it could see the launch of a new app, which will operate under an NHS-related brand, to help monitor calorie consumption and exercise levels.

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However, supermarkets have already trialled the use of reward cards to try to incentivise healthier choices for at-risk patients, including a trial launched with GPs in Oxford by Tesco in 2017, which used data for Clubcard to monitor their food choices after medical interventions.

The government said it would draw on best practice from around the world, such as the national step challenge in Singapore, a nationwide physical activity programme aimed at encouraging Singaporeans to do more physical activity as part of their daily lives with financial incentives.

Meanwhile more than £70m will be invested into weight management services – through the NHS and councils – which the government said would enable up to 700,000 adults to have access to support that can help them to lose weight, from access to digital apps, weight management groups or individual coaches, to specialist clinical support.

Other initiatives include helping people to maintain a healthy weight, including access to the free NHS 12-week weight loss plan app and continuing the Better Health marketing campaign to motivate people to make healthier choices.

“Losing weight is hard, but making small changes can make a big difference,” said PM Boris Johnson.

“Being overweight increases the risk of becoming ill with Covid. If we all do our bit, we can reduce our own health risks – but also help take pressure off the NHS.

“This funding will give extra support to people across the country who want to lose weight too.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England (PHE), added: “Living with obesity can have a devastating impact on people’s health and wellbeing in so many ways, not least its link this year to the increased risk from Covid.

“This investment will greatly boost services for adults struggling with their weight and raising the profile of our Better Health campaign will help to support more people to make healthier choices.”

Today’s move follows plans which leaked last month for a major shake-up of the NHS to include a focus on lifestyle as a key way to prevent obesity.

The food industry has long called for more of a focus on heathy lifestyles. Campaigners have been urging the government to tackle obesity by expanding the sugar tax and making reformulation targets on fat, sugar and salt compulsory.

“Given that obesity is a complex and multi-faceted issue, we’ve long called for a holistic approach to address obesity and targeted support for those who most need it,” said the FDF’s chief scientific officer Kate Halliwell.

Establishing a taskforce to help educate and encourage the public to make healthier choices is most welcome. An effective reduction in obesity levels will only be achieved if all play their part and we would welcome the opportunity to meet with Sir Keith to discuss how we can support the aims of the taskforce and help tackle the nation’s obesity challenge.”

However, health campaigners expressed alarm at the moves.

“Although there is an element of personal responsibility in both the treatment and prevention of obesity, this can only be achieved with equitable access to healthy, affordable food and this should be the responsibility of the food industry who need to take full control with strict measures which include reformulation, well-enforced marketing and promotions restrictions and better food-labelling requirements,” said Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, at Queen Mary University of London.

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