Retail and obesity

As the Scottish Government considers a ban on promotions for unhealthy foods, Leigh Sparks makes the intervention case

The Scottish Government could prevent retailers from promoting some foods
Leigh Sparks is Professor of Retail Studies at the University of Stirling, where he researches on aspects of retailing. He also runs a blog at

THE Scottish diet and its health implications have become something of a laughing stock and a national embarrassment. 

The over-reliance on processed foods, foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar and an under consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as excessive alcohol use, have led to Scotland’s diet and health being amongst the worst in Europe. 

Scottish governments of various persuasions have sought to tackle elements of the Scottish diet. Most notably, the ground breaking smoking ban in public places, action on promotions on alcohol, display bans and other restrictions on cigarettes and the long battle to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) on alcohol have focused attention on reducing the harm of alcohol and cigarettes. 

The data show the success of elements of these restrictions, especially on smoking. 

On the wider issue of food and health, despite healthy living and healthy eating campaigns and other informational and promotional pushes, the Scottish diet has pretty much failed to change. 

Why has this education, information and exhortation failed?   A focus of the search for the reasons has fallen on retailers, often centred around a range of topics including sweets at checkouts, price promotions, merchandising and advertising to children.

Retailers, as the focus of food purchasing, have been seen as the ’guilty’ party.  In particular the price promotions on ‘unhealthy’ products have been viewed as fuelling bad consumption habits and adversely impacting diet and health.  The ‘bad’ outweighs the ‘good’.

It is worth noting however that over this period food consumption out of the home e.g. in Greggs, McDonald’s and a myriad of fast food and other restaurants has risen quite sharply, challenging the retail focus for food purchasing and consumption. 

This centrality of food retailing in consumers’ lives is one reason why the Scottish Government is concerned with measures to impact the purchasing and consumption of unhealthy products.  The consultation period on ‘A Healthier Future’ ended earlier this year and proposals are possible across a range of interventions.  At this point it is not known if any will affect retailing but there is a head of steam up around the issue of price promotions on unhealthy foods, and the balance or prevalence of these. 

Our report for Food Standards Scotland examined the area of in-store activity and possible policies and issues. 

It is worth reiterating our point that singling out retailing would seem to be a narrow policy unlikely to have the appropriate impact. 

It is worth reiterating our point that singling out retailing would be unlikely to have the appropriate impact.

But can retailers simply ‘cry foul’ and hide behind individual rights and personal responsibilities?  This is a difficult argument to stand up on two counts. 

First, the societal harm from the aggregation of personal decisions is now excessive in terms of personal health and national cost.  Expecting others to pick up the costs for personal behaviours is no longer sustainable. 

Secondly, in any food retail store it is impossible to say there is a neutral or fair environment.  Consumers are bombarded with overt and implicit messages about what they should buy and consume.  No amount of healthy eating promotion can counter this without help.  Levelling this playing field might be the most useful first step in achieving change in the Scottish diet.  Hence potential restrictions on promotional and other retail operational activities.

For some retailers this is a worrying thought, as much of their business centres around products that may be considered unhealthy or ‘treats’. 

Promotions are seen to drive sales and price is important.  Any proposals are unlikely to lead to the banning of products, but will probably be seeking to make them less visible and possibly less attractive. 

Thought through sensibly, retailers will be able to make adjustments and help their consumers live healthier and longer lives. 

This has to be in the interest of retailers as well as consumers.  At the same time if consumption can be switched to healthier products and promotional activities, which tend to provide lower margins, are reduced, then retailers could benefit. 

This is not going to be easy or straightforward, but for the sake of individuals and the country we have to try.  The alternatives have failed.