Marketing ban not a cure-all for obesity crisis

Dominic Watkins, head of the food group at business law firm DWF.
Dominic Watkins, head of the food group at business law firm DWF.

SCOTLAND has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. As poor diet is a major contributing factor to the issue, it is clear that action needs to be taken and part of that is to curb what the Scottish Government views as irresponsible marketing practices for foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Following its announcement, the Scottish Government and Food Standards Agency in Scotland began engaging with the food industry, setting out draft ideas for supporting healthy choices in Scotland. The draft proposals have a particular focus on children’s health, promotions, better information for consumers and making products and menus healthier. While the full details are yet to be disclosed, it is reasonable to assume that they will go much further than the existing TV advertising scheduling restrictions.
Engagement with the food industry is only part of the wider picture. The problem at hand is two-fold: attempting to change the behaviours of the food industry; and trying to change consumer behaviour – a far bigger challenge. Proposals alone cannot radically change consumer behaviour, nor can banning the way certain foods are marketed.
A multitude of factors affect the issue and consumer education is just as important as engaging with the industry.
One aspect that cannot be ignored is the influence of price on food purchasing choices. The Office for National Statistics recently published a study suggesting that UK families have cut back on fresh fruit and vegetables and switched to processed foods due to tighter budgets. Often it is the less healthy options that are cheaper to buy and this means that those with lower incomes make poor nutritional choices, which may compromise their health in the long-term. In addition, many individuals are time-poor, don’t have traditional cooking skills, and take little exercise. If we take all of these elements into account, it is clear that changes to marketing behaviour alone would be unlikely to be effective.
The proposals are now the subject of a 12-week public consultation which will give the food industry the public opportunity it needs to carefully consider the impact of the proposals. It will be vital for the industry to play a full part in that discussion to ensure that the proposed changes are workable and will make a meaningful difference.
The food industry does have a key role to play in facing up to Scotland’s obesity crisis and is likely to have little choice but to sign up to this new proposal to avoid the possibility of Government legislation.
However, focusing on marketing alone is not enough and, given the scale of the problem and the challenges involved, legislation is quite likely in the future. Ahead of the public consultation we didn’t know exactly what shape proposals will take.
However, one thing is certain: if it proves successful in Scotland, it is likely that the idea will move south of the border, creating a whole raft of additional challenges.