'Bold' obesity plan in Scotland would see manufacturers suffer, says industry

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

© World Obesity Federation
© World Obesity Federation

Related tags Junk food Childhood obesity strategy Nutrition Scotland Uk Scottish government

Scotland needs a “bold approach” to tackle obesity, according to an influential group of politicians. But food industry representatives said tough regulation could present “barriers to business” for the country’s manufacturers.

Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) on the health and sport committee said decent policies are already in place but this is “not necessarily translating into healthy outcomes”.

The cross-party group therefore urged the government to consider new legislation. Promotion and advertising should be the principal targets, they explained in a letter to health minister Aileen Campbell.

The Scottish Government is currently pulling together a national obesity strategy, which campaigners hope will go further than the UK’s much-maligned childhood obesity strategy. Junk food taxes and advertising restrictions are reported to be under consideration, with Scotland’s newly formed food authority prepared to take a hard line should industry-led initiatives fail to work.

Cost considerations

However, the Scottish Food & Drink Federation (SFDF) said the plan must mirror the one in the UK or the government risks placing additional burdens on Scottish businesses. Any extra regulation in Scotland “will make the cost of business more expensive here than it is in the rest of the UK”, ​SFDF director David Thomson told FoodNavigator. “These business barriers are not good for the economy,”​ he warned.

Thomson cited the example of Scotland introducing laws on labelling, through the EU Food Information to Consumers regulation, that didn’t reflect the UK approach. “You would need different stock keeping units (SKUs) for different parts of the country and that is an unnecessary cost,”​ he explained. The government must look at whether some of these policies add to the cost of doing business, he added.

Policy for our times

Times of austerity make it harder to implement any policy, much less a bold one, and with Scotland hit by falling oil prices it’s likely the new plan will follow the lead set by the UK government in London. “Implementing a comprehensive obesity policy, such as the committee would like, is more difficult now than it has been in the past,”​ noted Professor Jack Winkler, emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University.

He said reformulation is “a policy for our times. It is ‘voluntary’ and uncertain/variable, but it has the great advantage of benefiting everyone, not just those interested in ‘healthy eating’,”​ he added.

The big bonus for politicians is that it’s the private sector rather than government that foots the (fairly sizeable) bill for reformulation. At the heart of the UK’s plan are targets to cut sugar by 20% in various categories as well as a levy on sugar-sweetened drinks. SFDF’s Thomson is hopeful these targets can be met, but it won’t be easy, he added.

He also believes a strategy akin to the UK’s can deliver results in a country where 65% of adults are overweight and 29% are obese. The committee noted how the gap between the least and most deprived is also widening when it comes to obesity: people on low incomes with very small budgets will prioritise calories over nutrients, they said.

“If we don’t act now, we will be condemning future generations to a lifetime of poor health which is often driven by poverty leading to poor dietary choices,”​ explained committee convenor Neil Findlay.

The MSPs noted the “staggering”​ amounts of food currently bought on promotion, with the “vast majority”​ of price-promoted food being unhealthy. Research by consumer Which?​ last year indicated that 53% of more than 77,000 products on promotion were ‘less healthy’.

The expansion of the Committee of Advertising Practice – prevent brands pushing foods high in fat, salt and sugar in all non-broadcast media specifically targeted at children – was welcomed.

Still, research in 2015​ showed that nearly three-quarters of food and drinking marketing seen by children in Scotland is for junk food. And Campbell has already suggested that she would seek devolution of advertising powers from the UK to Scotland should the UK government not rethink its position on a pre-9pm ban on junk food ads.

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