Public health policy should shift to understand why people eat unhealthily, says Kevin Hawkins

Sainsbury's CEO King recently called on the government to clarify its public health strategy. The DH is presumably grappling with this right now. After years of initiative-itis emanating from three different government arms, thinking through an effective alternative can't be easy.

Previous ministers, egged on by the reform-or-die lobby, had to be seen to be doing something. So zillions of taxpayers' money have been blown away to no great effect.

The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey results underline how little real change has occurred in the past decade. Uptake of even the relatively simple 5-a-day has only marginally improved while the incidence of obesity has increased. Two opposing policy conclusions follow.

Direct interventionists argue that as voluntary solutions require sufficient volunteers and as these are not forthcoming, some form of compulsion is necessary. The options include taxing foods considered to be unhealthy and "editing" manufacturers' and retailers' ranges, especially products for kids, to remove temptation. Nanny staters really don't like choice. The likely result? A massive consumer backlash and a nasty legal battle with the EU.

We do, however, have the makings of a more intelligent approach. Andrew Lansley has said (The Grocer, 13 March) he wants to understand the dynamics of behavioural change instead of trying to browbeat people into healthier eating.

Some years ago, IGD produced research suggesting most consumers only changed their diet in response to something personal for example, a health problem or the realisation that an entire wardrobe will have to be ditched unless a waist shrinks. Warnings from quangos about the consequences of eating too much of this or too little of that are more likely to float away on the breeze particularly when another group of researchers challenges the prevailing orthodoxy.

Instead of focusing so much attention on what people are eating, it might be more productive to discover more about why they eat (and drink) what they do.

Research is already available that throws valuable light on the factors influencing unwise diets, but more could be done. The challenge then will be to shape the findings into a long-term strategy that has a better chance of success than anything we have seen to date. As the saying goes: "Speak softly and carry a big carrot."

Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant