At the end of last year, landmark legislation was passed through Parliament which brought in new laws to restrict sales promotions on certain unhealthy food and drinks, including biscuits, sweets and crisps. It’s passage through Parliament was unremarkable, with strong cross-party support, and followed an extensive public consultation on the merits of the policy along with a technical consultation on the detail of its implementation.
Multi-buys = more ££
The policy is based on an extensive evidence-base. Most people are familiar with the impulse-buy potential of placing an array of sweets at checkouts (usually just at the level to coincide with a child’s line of sight). Unsurprisingly research clearly confirms that placing products in key locations, such as entrances, aisle-ends and checkout increases sales by as much as 50%. What may be more surprising is the effect of multi-buy sales promotions, such as 3for2 or buy-one-get-one-free. It goes without saying that people love getting things for free, so multi-buy promotions disguise themselves as cost-saving, when research shows the reverse is true – multibuys lead to us spending more, at a time when families are trying to cut costs.
The new rules also enjoy high levels of public support. After two-years of living through a public health pandemic, our health has become more precious, and this has translated in support for policies that make it easier to be healthy.
Consumer organisation Which? has long campaigned the Government to regulate against promotions on unhealthy food. In 2016, their research found over half of supermarket price promotions (53%) were on less healthy foods compared to healthier products (47%). Sue Davies, Which? Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy, said:
“Our research has repeatedly found that people are supportive of measures to tackle unhealthy food promotions. In Which? surveys, consumers have said that the balance of promotions on unhealthy foods, rather than healthier ones, is a key barrier for consumers looking to make better food choices. As food prices and the cost of living continue to rise, it is more important than ever that the government follows through with and implement its legislation to limit excessive promotions on unhealthy foods”.
So given the evidence, the public support and the fact that it’s already law, it’s baffling that there are persistent rumours about the Government potentially reviewing the policy. This would require new legislation, to reverse legislation passed just six months ago, eating up up precious Parliamentary time.
The most recent raft of doubt is linked to Government attempts to address the cost-of-living crisis, with detractors of the policy, ignoring the evidence to claim that removing multi-buys on junk food could harm low-income families.
In fact, the cost-of-living crisis is already a huge risk factor for further increasing child obesity. Energy hikes and rising inflation make it increasingly difficult for many families in the UK to afford the food they need. Rising food prices may make financially struggling households more reliant on lower cost foods, which tend to be calorie-dense and nutrient poor. Allowing food companies to continue to promote the unhealthiest types of food will further push families towards diets that can harm their health, while costing them more money in the long-term.
It’s entirely misleading to suggest that sales promotions are some kind of generous goodwill effort by retailers. They are predatory marketing tactics, conceived to trigger impulse purchases – and when they are skewed towards high fat, sugar and salt products, they can undermine efforts to be healthy, as Nadya Isaacs from the Obesity Empowerment Network explains:
“Living a healthy life should be foremost in all people’s lives – not only me, as a person living with obesity. The display and promotion of high calorie foods is extremely detrimental when I am trying to make healthy choices in my purchases of food. We all know that having willpower alone is not the solution. The huge presence of advertising of these products at check-out points, high traffic areas, as well as the aggressive marketing of the BOGOF products, especially now in this time of increased cost of living does have a huge effect on my purchases. It adds to my struggle to make better and healthier choices. Buy 2 and save 30p or just one small chocolate bar will not hurt – It is not as simple as that.
Policy to benefit everyone’s health
Poor diets contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year in England alone and cost the economy about 74 billion pounds. So, the flood of junk food in our environment is an issue that affects everyone. Rather than being seen as a policy to address obesity, we need to consider this as a vital policy to improve everyone’s health.
Removing junk food from tempting and high traffic places, banning deceptive price promotions will literally take the spotlight off these unhealthy products. This will steer shoppers to healthier alternatives and incentivise the food industry to make their products healthier – as some progressive companies are already doing.
The Department of Health has recently published implementation guidance on the new rules – which could be seen as clear statement of intent to push on with the policy. Certainly, it’s not helpful to either retailers or manufacturers to not have certainty about the changing rules and several companies have welcomed the incoming rules.
In October a quick trip to the supermarket will show whether evidence and public support has prevailed over doubt and detractors – will there be the usual wall of crisps and chocolate tubs at the entrance or can the food industry rise to the challenge and put healthier food centre stage. For the sake of everyone’s health (and wallets), let’s hope it’s the second option.