Obesity affects the health of millions of people in the UK. The concerning trends in childhood obesity make it inevitable that this burden will increase. The social and economic costs of obesity in the UK are simply not sustainable.
Reducing obesity is therefore, rightly, a strategic priority for the UK’s governments. It is also a priority for Nestlé in keeping with our purpose, which is to enhance quality of life and contribute to a healthier future.
The government’s Childhood Obesity Plan creates a watershed in public health policy for the food industry. It includes regulation for the first time, through the introduction of the sugar levy on soft drinks, alongside voluntary measures. The voluntary sugar reduction programme, which we support, is a core element of the plan. It is ambitious, but we are already working towards the 20% sugar reduction by 2020.
The plan is ‘the start of a conversation’. I believe we should look ahead and start to explore further the potential role of regulation in future health policy.
In recent years, policy has focused primarily on voluntary action under the Public Health Responsibility Deal. Nestlé UK was one of its leading supporters - it demonstrated the substantial progress that voluntary measures can and will achieve.
However, a growing divide has developed between advocates of a voluntary approach and advocates of regulation. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex debate, food and drink manufacturing has favoured a voluntary approach - while health organisations have generally argued regulation is also required.
Critics of the voluntary approach have pointed to its limited take-up, and this perspective is understandable. For action to match the scale of the public health challenge, the entire UK food and drink industry needs to act, including the out-of-home sector, for example. An unintended consequence of voluntarism is that companies that voluntarily invest to reformulate their products are disadvantaged compared to those that take time to act, or take only limited action.
There are new technologies that can help tackle obesity. However, they require long-term investment by industry, and collaboration between academia, industry and policymakers. A purely voluntary approach acts as a disincentive to this.
So we believe it is important to acknowledge the case for regulation. Voluntary action and regulation both have important roles.
From Nestlé UK’s perspective, regulation should be based on four principles. First, it should achieve public health objectives. Second, it should be evidence-based. Third, it should create a level playing field for the entire food industry. And fourth, it should incentivise investment in research & development, new technologies, and innovations that help tackle obesity.
We should take the Childhood Obesity Plan as a call to action. We believe it is time to start exploring a wider range of potential measures to reduce obesity, including regulation. We plan to work with independent experts, academics, and health organisations to help develop policy solutions for the future.
Fiona Kendrick is chairman & CEO of Nestlé UK & Ireland