Public Health England’s revelation yesterday that its evidence review supports bringing in a tax on added-sugar drinks has understandably captured the headlines, especially amid accusations that health secretary Jeremy Hunt has tried to bury it under the carpet.
But it should not be lost that when PHE chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone addressed the health committee, she said the government’s health experts rated three other measures as more effective in bringing about sugar reduction to tackle the obesity crisis.
These are a renewed drive by supermarkets to reduce sugar (and fat) across a vast range of products; a clampdown on the “deep and consistent” practice of advertising HFSS foods to children; and a more responsible approach to promotions.
There has been some progress on the first two of these already, but in calling for a change to promotions, PHE has reopened a topic that has dogged the DH for the past two years and which is seen by insiders as the biggest failure of the Responsibility Deal.
Tedstone revealed PHE’s review features a report by Kantar Worldpanel that shows promotions in stores are heavily skewed towards HFSS products and that this has led to a 6% spike in sugar consumption.
PHE wants the situation “rebalanced”, but if the government is to succeed it will have to fare much better than the DH’s previous efforts.
As long ago as 2013, the department had drawn up a long list of measures – including moves to put “healthy” products in more prominent positions in store – which it hoped to get agreement for from supermarkets and suppliers.
Yet concerns about the possible competition implications of such measures were great and the response from industry therefore decidedly lacklustre. When the DH asked retailers for a list of possible actions last November, it received just four suggestions.
In fairness, one of these – the ban on guilt lanes since adopted by Aldi, Lidl and Tesco – was significant. But the PHE clearly wants new moves on promotions to go much, much further. It appears its report will call for banning any HFSS product from aisle-end activity, limiting the overall amount of such products on promotion and giving so-called healthy options prime position in store, among other measures.
Yet as Susan Jebb, chair of the defunct Responsibility Deal Food Network, pointed out, the very reason previous moves on this failed was because they “cut to the very heart of businesses’ competitiveness”. It’s hard to see why PHE thinks this suddenly won’t be a problem anymore.
There’s the political climate to consider too. Is a Conservative government really going to go where the coalition feared to tread and start telling supermarkets what they can and can’t promote?
It was hard enough for the DH to get suppliers to sign up to traffic-light labelling. A crackdown on promotions could be an even bigger minefield for ministers to tackle when we finally get round to seeing what’s under Hunt’s carpet.