Beyond the Sugar Tax – what the childhood obesity strategy might mean for businesses

Sugar, sugar, sugar – it seems to be everywhere.

Sugar, sugar, sugar – it seems to be everywhere. With the Health Committee’s Childhood Obesity report published on Monday, it does seem to be the business topic of the day. Yet with all the focus on the report supporting the calls for a tax on full sugar soft drinks, businesses risk losing sight of a number of other challenges which loom for producers, manufacturers, and retailers. However, looking at the report, a number of other industries would be affected as well.

  1. Price promotions

As the British public purchases around 40 per cent of their food on promotions, the policy area around promotions is bound to have a substantial impact on retailers and businesses operating in the UK. The Committee found during the course of their hearings that many of the in-store promotions lead to products high in sugar and fat being overly represented in the nature of promotions that are delivered. Subsequently a recommendation in the report is to rebalance the number and type of promotions.

To achieve this, mandatory, comprehensive controls are encouraged by the Health Select Committee. This goes for not just the multi-buy promotions retailers often use, buy one get one free, but also include products with a temporary price reduction and where the size of a product is temporarily  increased to make it more lucrative. While they do acknowledge incentives that could help counteract unintended consequences of such controls, it is undoubtedly going to have a consequence for businesses in the UK.

  1. Marketing and advertising to children

Another area where one can note some important developments is within the marketing and advertising practices by the food industry. The report recommends extending current restrictions on advertising and marketing to children to other broadcast media and other outlets, such as cinemas, posters, print, online and advergames. It is strongly emphasised that this should be done without delay and that Committee of Advertising Practice’s forthcoming consultation should focus on how to achieve this. Moving the advertising of high fat, salt and sugary products to after the 9pm watershed is also emphasised by the Committee.

Finally, the report states that loopholes surrounding the use of cartoon characters and celebrities to promote high sugar products ought to be closed and reviewed. Particularly as the latter constitutes a substantial part of companies’ marketing practices these days, it is important to acknowledge beyond the mention of a sugar tax.

  1. Labelling

To provide a more visual representation on the amount of sugar in a product, the Committee calls for the introduction of a teaspoon labelling mark, which would draw attention to how many teaspoons (4g of sugar per teaspoon) a product contains. Single servings of food products would be affected by this. Whereas the report does not urge for a mandatory regulation of this, it does make clear that it could be made mandatory, should businesses not comply with the voluntary pledges.

Having such a labelling practice could very well make consumers think twice about the lunch meal they pick up during their lunch hour. However, it has been argued by so doing, it will provide an additional incentive for businesses to ensure an effective reformulation agenda to not be faced with a unfavourable front-of-pack label.

  1. School education

In the era of challenges to education, it is clear that the general public often are not as well informed about the arguably negative effects of a sugary, high fat/salt diet in combination with lack of physical activity. Thus the report stresses the importance of education campaigns. Teachers should be able to have conversations about the nutritional content of children’s school lunches and national guidelines should be set up for school meals. How many resources the educational sector would be able to free up to this end remains to be seen, however.

  1. Local authorities

Planning legislation is urged to be changed to make it easier for local authorities to take greater consideration of “unhealthy food outlets” in their area when making planning decisions. Information may be limited on this particular recommendation at the moment, but it is clear that it could in fact come to impact takeaways, local restaurants and perhaps even planners themselves when drawing up proposals.

These five points are but a few of the recommendations set out by the report. Following the debate in Westminster Hall on Monday afternoon, there appears to be an overall political consensus forming around the measures necessary to tackle obesity. A holistic approach is urged by all and while a sugar tax remains at the forefront of this (despite the Government’s rejection), everyone is looking towards a wide-reaching strategy. This means that the forthcoming childhood obesity strategy is bound to include at least parts of the measures suggested by the Health Select Committee.

It may be tough to see whether they will be successful in curbing the nation’s obesity crisis, which is accepted by all to be a good, necessary goal, but businesses should prepare for what achieving this end might mean.