The government believes its voucher scheme with the News of the World and Asda could generate lasting change to diets, says Hannah Stodell

It's not just about Christmas revellers detoxing.

The new year also marks a new stage in the government's Change4Life campaign as it looks to jolt the sloths of Britain into action.

In addition to a spectrum of activities and nutritional advice, the government is dangling a £250m carrot in the form of a voucher scheme to help lower-income families eat more healthily and get ­active under its new 'Great Swapathon' initiative, encouraging them to swap at least one unhealthy habit for a healthier one and save money to boot.

The DH has joined forces with Asda and the News of the World to distribute four million £50 voucher books to the public and is working with food and drink manufacturers to offer money off healthier alternatives. There are deals on everything from lower-fat mayonnaise and dog food brands (sic) to 20% off Asda dining room furniture to help get more families eating together as well as money off play sessions and sports gear. It is also sending out a further one million voucher books for distribution through small businesses, groups and ­centres in the community.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley is billing the latest social 'nudge' as a "revolutionary new partnership" between government, industry and the media. But the voucher scheme has been met with significant scepticism from health campaigners and the general media.

So, what do the corporate tie-ups tell us about the government's strategy? Will a voucher scheme help change consumer behaviour in the long term? Or is it just ­another gimmick?

Health campaigners are broadly supportive of Change4Life's wider efforts to curb obesity but raise concerns over possible conflicts posed by the selected partners of the new voucher scheme. "There is nothing wrong with pointing out to people that they could switch from sugary breakfast cereals to a wholegrain alternative but there is a fundamental conflict with some of the partners Kellogg's, for example, which last year ran an advertising campaign encouraging kids to eat Coco Pops after school," says Children's Food Campaign coordinator Christine Haigh. "Will a one-off swap on ­cereal translate into a long-term change? A yoghurt may be healthier than a chocolate mousse but I don't think we are going to solve the dire obesity problem just because people get a few free. There are more structural things such as traffic-light labelling and stopping advertising junk food to kids, which companies are not doing, so is this a distraction strategy from taking those steps we would like to see?"

Lower-income groups

The DH says it undertook "an open and fair" partnership selection process including a public invitation to submit proposals for the society-wide initiative. But given that a key target is lower income groups, it is not a huge surprise the News of the World is the chosen media outlet, and Asda the retail partner. DH acknowledges the News of the World's demographic was a consideration but stresses the tabloid and Asda offered "best value for money", including free editorial coverage, contribution to the vouchers and wider campaign promotion through their own channels and distribution. Existing commercial relationships and timings were also key to delivering a campaign in time for January, it adds, and it would welcome the opportunity to widen the net for future activity.

One shouldn't read too much into the specifics of the companies involved, argues Susan Jebb, of the MRC Human Nutrition Research centre in Cambridge and chairwoman of the government's Food Responsibility Deal Network. "I certainly don't see these companies as driving the campaign DH still holds the cards here but the companies are involved in delivering the message and, in this case, largely paying for it too," she says. "We have to get the food industry on board to help deliver dietary changes identified by public health experts if we are to drive change."

Another 'nudge' for change from David Cameron's Behavioural Insight Team might see supermarkets introduce baskets and trolleys with special compartments for fruit and veg, to encourage shoppers to buy more of their five-a-day. Asda, however, says it has no plans for such activity.

Critics have suggested companies putting their weight behind the scheme such as Birds Eye, Kellogg's, Mars, Nestlé and Unilever have leapt at the opportunity to be seen as the white knights in the obesity crisis but the manufacturers defend their involvement as one aspect of a bigger fight against Britain's bulge.

"We aren't 'paying for the privilege', this is a normal commercial promotion, aiming to highlight our healthy products and encouraging the nation to eat more healthily. Our products won't be changing as a result," says a Unilever spokeswoman.

Nestlé, whose yoghurt and waters businesses are also included in the voucher scheme, says its involvement is part of the brand's over-arching marketing campaign.

Given the selected partnerships involved, is the government's one million healthier swap target realistic? Yes, says Bryan Urbick, CEO of the Consumer Knowledge Centre, which studies the relationship between food and children, but the ideal scenario would be a broader network of partners and the key roadblock will continue to be consumer acceptance. "I can see the logic of their partnerships as a starting point but it seems a bit selective to use one supermarket and I do think it would be better if the scheme was ultimately widened. Do I think the food industry has good intentions? Yes. But we're also talking about businesses and they need to make money, so consumers need confidence that this is a proper programme, not a marketing gimmick."

A one-off voucher scheme it may be, but the initiative should be viewed as a hook for a much wider integrated strategy from government and industry against obesity, and its success will hinge on public engagement with such activities.

The media coverage, positive or negative, if nothing else serves as a useful reminder to families of the importance of healthier habits and if the voucher scheme attracts as much public interest as it has column inches, it could be well on its way to nudging some meaningful change in public health.

The great swapathon at a glance
A £50 book of vouchers comes with the News of the World tomorrow and is also stocked in selected Asdas from 15 January. Food brands involved include Asda; Birds Eye; Kellogg's; Unilever; Nestlé; Britvic; Molson Coors; Mars; Warburtons.

Andrew Lansley, secretary of state for health, will be speaking at The Grocer's 'Food & Health' Conference, and will provide insight into the coalition's thinking on food, drink and public health on 2 February in London.

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