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Fighting the wrong battles: the UK government’s new obesity strategy
The announcement of the government’s new obesity strategy to “lose weight to beat coronavirus (COVID-19)”, has been met with significant opposition from businesses and consumers. In this blog, we’ll explore what the new measures are, what their impact could be, and whether they will affect sugar manufacturers.
What are the new obesity laws?
Coming just two years after the introduction of the sugar tax in 2018, the government’s latest health initiative, spearheaded by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his experiences battling coronavirus, takes a more radical approach to try and solve the UK’s obesity problem.
Of the new measures, the most significant concern advertising and promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS). If the proposals go ahead, HFSS food products will no longer be allowed advertising on television or online before the nine o’clock watershed, and they will be forbidden from being included as in-store promotions, such as end-of-aisle product placements and buy one get one free (BOGOF) discounts.
Other key measures relate to calorie labelling. As a result, restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees will be required to add calorie labels to their food and alcohol products. The full list of measures can be found on the government’s website here.
How will the new laws impact businesses in the UK?
Framed as a move to prevent impulse purchases and excessive buying, the reality is the new legislation will reduce the number of foods consumers can buy and reduce the revenue many businesses can make. Indeed, food suppliers and retailers have already warned that the new laws could cost them £700 million and £500 million in lost revenue respectively.
Especially in the context of a global pandemic and subsequent recession, this seems to go against the grain of supporting businesses to revive the economy. Promotions and in-store product placements are a crucial part of a retailer’s commercial strategy – taking these methods away hinders how these businesses can recoup some of the damage inflicted by the pandemic. Consequently, this has led the BRC to describe the strategy as ‘ill thought-out’.
But the new laws affect more sectors than food. Indeed, due to repeated cancellations, broadcasters are now set to lose more than £200 million in advertising spends this year. This is a point underlined by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising Director General, Paul Bainsfair, who argues the measures “punish the very businesses that have been helping the country get through the COVID-19 crisis.”
How does this translate to the consumer?
Crucially, it will make life more expensive for many consumers. Particularly for lower-income households, promotions and discounts help save on costs. Removing them makes it harder for these households to budget, and significantly, the government is yet to provide a comprehensive plan for reducing the cost of ‘healthier’ products.
Beyond cost, though, the new measures reduce consumers’ freedom to make their own decisions about the products they purchase. This directly contradicts the principles the food and beverage industry has been built on: competition and extensive product selection. Instead of introducing measures that force the hands of consumers, the government should trust its citizens to make their own decisions about the foods they eat. To that end, the introduction of calorie labelling in food services is one of the few positives from the new strategy. Namely, this is because it will provide consumers with more information to make decisions themselves.
What does this mean for sugar manufacturers?
On first glance, many might assume that the new legislation will result in the development of more ‘reduced-sugar’ products. However, the government’s new strategy is not reserved for HFSS foods only, it also impacts these ‘reduced-sugar’ products. It seems, therefore, that the government’s aim is to remove sugar from our diets entirely.
However, this will never be a realistic solution because removing sugar is the ultimate sacrifice of flavour and presents food producers with significant manufacturing challenges. For example, without sugar, how will food manufacturers keep their products fresher for longer?
Some would suggest looking towards sugar-free alternatives. But, although these alternatives may position themselves as healthier substitutes, they often include additives that create new problems while failing to replicate the flavour and functionality of pure sugars. Despite the new legislation, then, sugar will continue to play a crucial role in our everyday lives.
Indeed, although well-intentioned, the new measures are somewhat misguided. Lacking coherency and pragmatism, the strategy’s crucial shortcoming is that it only attempts to tackle a small part of a much wider problem. Only time will tell whether the government revisits the approach in search of a more comprehensive and sustainable solution.