Scotland has long been referred to as the sick man of Europe. The country is synonymous with the deep-fried Mars bar and battered pizza and, while much has been done to tackle its population's unhealthy tendencies, worrying statistics on levels of alcohol and obesity-related problems show that more action is needed.
This week the Scottish Grocers' Federation attempted to rise to the challenge at its annual conference, launching major initiatives to put the nation on the road to a clean bill of health, and advocating responsible retailing.
Keynote speakers called on c-store operators to make ranges more healthy. "The supply of fresh produce has traditionally been poor in this sector, especially outside the Glasgow and Edinburgh areas," said Gillian Kynoch, food and health co-ordinator for the Scottish Executive.
One of the biggest barriers to healthy food consumption is the "ingrained perception" of retailers that there is little profit in fresh food, she said, flagging up work done by the executive through the Healthy Living programme. This encourages and supports more than 250 retailers in their efforts to make fresh produce available and maximise sales through displays, promotional support and staff training. More retailers are being asked to sign up.
"It's all about promotion and availability," said Kynoch. "Consumers should be able to rely on a c-store for their healthy choices. This is especially important in remote areas."
England and Wales could learn from Healthy Living, added Spar UK's managing director Jerry Marwood, telling the conference that the scheme was "conspicuous by its absence" south of the border.
Another major talking point at the conference was the growing problem of alcohol abuse in Scotland. The SGF announced it was rolling out a campaign dubbed '100% Proof' to gather support for a proof-of-age card for all 15 to 25-year-olds in Scotland.
The move is aimed at tackling the shocking statistics that one person dies every six hours in Scotland as a direct result of alcohol - double the UK average. Estimates suggest that alcohol misuse is costing the Scottish economy more than £1bn a year.
The SGF, which will publish its Responsible Retail Charter later this year, called on retailers to play their part in fighting alcohol misuse and tobacco-related deaths by enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to selling to minors.
"Underage sales are the single biggest issue facing this sector," Gordon MacRae, public affairs adviser for the SGF, told delegates. "Not only can alcohol licences be suspended, retailers can face criminal prosecution and a store's reputation can be damaged."
The SGF wants all eligible young people to be issued with an identity card by 2009 and is asking the Scottish Executive to launch a campaign to encourage all young people to carry their cards and not be abusive when asked to produce them. It also called for cross-party support for the campaign.
The conference was also buzzing with talk of a test-purchasing scheme, announced the day before, that the Executive hopes will crack down on outlets flouting the law. It was time for c-stores to embrace the concept of responsible retailing said SGF president Pete Cheema, and they were in a unique position to do so. "Too many consumers find themselves prevented from making healthy eating choices due to price, availability and habitual poor diet," he said. "C-stores are the most effective vehicle for delivering change at a community level."n