For the health lobbyists, it was a rout; for advertisers – and especially those in the food, soft drinks and alcohol sectors – a triumph and an indisputable turning point.
Yesterday’s landmark speech by health secretary Andrew Lansley left not a shadow of a doubt about the government’s future stance on the obesity debate. Nannying – in the sense of strict legislative curbs – is out and “nudge” – the employment of persuasion techniques to mould consumer behaviour – is definitively in.
In practice it means that a fiscally-challenged Government intends to withdraw some public funding from the 3-year Change4Life programme, leaving business to take up the financial slack. Almost without saying, this puts the members of the Business4Life initiative in an unprecedentedly powerful position.
As if to underline the point more graphically, Lansley made specific reference to some of the main consortium members in his redefinition of government policy:
“It is perfectly possible to eat a Mars bar, or a bag of crisps or have a carbonated drink if you do it in moderation, understanding your overall diet and lifestyle. Then you can begin to take responsibility for it and the companies who are selling you those things can be part of that responsibility too.” Companies which include Mars, Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola (owner of Walkers Crisps).
What this means for the health lobby was bleakly summed up by Tam Fry, the feisty leading-edge of the National Obesity Forum. “NOF is horror-struck at Mr Lansley’s remarks. It sees them as nothing other than a bare-faced request for cash from a rich food and drink industry to bail out a cash-starved Department of Health campaign, ” he says. I might scruple at the “nothing other” bit, but find it hard to disagree with his argument, as far as it goes.
Lansley’s new concordat is at once an opportunity and a trap for the food and drink industry. It’s an opportunity to exercise more responsibility in what it sells, and how it sells it, to an increasingly wary consumer. As Fry points out, many food manufacturers continue to sell products whose salt, sugar, and fat content is well in excess of Food Standards Agency guidelines. There are signs of greater self-restaint, particularly in the area of trans fats, but it is slow and grudging. The science surrounding obesity meanwhile moves on, and with it – if diffusely and haphazardly – the consumer perception of what is acceptably healthy and what is not. Only this week, for example, a study found that children who are obese tend to exercise less, because they are already overweight; rather than because their lack of exercise causes them to put on weight. In other words, from the complex miasma of obesity’s causes – among them poor education, lack of exercise and poverty – junk food has once more emerged as an all-too-visible spectre.
So, when Lansley advises Business4Life to reach for the till, it should reach for the till. But its members must also remember that what they are doing will lack all public credibility if it is unaccompanied by measurable changes in the behaviour of the food and drink companies themselves. This is not an opportunity for coasting.