Obesity and alcohol abuse are deemed as two of the biggest ills facing UK society and the food and drink industries find themselves in the firing line from government and the media. However, this week, food manufacturers demonstrated that they are, after recognising their role in rising obesity, able to work with regulators to tackle the problem. Chris Brook-Carter believes the UK drinks industry has much to learn from its food counterparts.

I remember writing about four years ago, on the pages of our sister site just-drinks.com, that the level of media attention in the UK being levelled on obesity may temper the threat of potential regulation of the alcohol industry as legislators sharpened their teeth for a different prey.

With calls at the time for warning labels on chocolate bars and punitive measures to protect our children from the supposed evils of Cadbury and PepsiCo's marketing machines, I think I was right - for a while.

Government rhetoric and media coverage this week on both issues, however, has demonstrated how, once again, alcohol abuse has leapfrogged obesity to stake its claim as public enemy number one in the eyes of regulators, the media and, tellingly, the public.

The alcohol industry missed an opportunity, when the spotlight was temporarily off it, to get its house truly in order and ward off the regulators. By comparison, those in the food industry have largely grasped the threat that confronted them.

It would have been easy to raise a defensive wall in the face of all the criticism being levelled at the food industry for rising levels of obesity. The sector is an easy target for lobbyists and regulators eager for a quick fix to a complex problem.
But, rather than point out that a myriad of social ills and issues of personal responsibility were just as culpable for obesity, food companies recognised early on that they needed to be at the centre of this debate. By accepting some of the criticism levelled at it, the sector has been able to help drive the agenda, prove that it is a serious stakeholder looking for a solution, and, in doing so, ward off draconian legislation.

This week, food manufacturing giants including Cadbury, Kellogg and Mars pledged more than GBP200m (US$398m) to support a UK government-backed scheme to tackle obesity in the country.

The likes of Kraft, Nestle and PepsiCo have also joined the consortium of manufacturers, retailers, broadcasters and fitness groups in supporting a campaign dubbed Change4Life, which hopes to encourage people to eat more healthily and take more exercise. The scheme is industry-driven but it has the backing of the UK government and the Advertising Association.

Contrast this co-operation with the language used by the Department of Health earlier in the week, when it attacked the drinks industry's failure to adhere to its own voluntary code of conduct. Legislation looms ever larger for the alcohol industry. For the soft drink and food industries the threat, in the medium term, seems thwarted.

Why then this difference in the relations between the two industries and the government?

"Well, you don't see grown men beating each other up in Croydon after eating eight Crunchie bars, do you?" was the reaction of one friend of mine when I discussed the contrasting fortunes of the food and drinks industries.

True. But the effects of obesity still have huge social consequences, with a government study suggesting that two-thirds of adults and a third of children are overweight or obese. Forecasts published last year predicted that, by 2050, 60% of adult men, half of all adult women and a quarter of children under 16 could be obese.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson said last night (23 July) that obesity is the "biggest challenge" the UK faces. That's obesity not alcohol.

So where has the food industry succeeded where the alcohol industry has so palpably failed to convince authorities it is better off tackling its own problems?

Many in the drinks industry will argue that millions of pounds have been spent on sensible drinking campaigns and that anti-alcohol sentiment was an unstoppable tide.

But the industry's reaction to the KPMG study that sparked the Health Department's comments shed some light on the problem. Unsurprisingly, much of that reaction has been defensive, dismissing some of the report as anecdotal and slamming the idea that new legislation is the answer.

The reaction from a sector under threat is understandable but it reinforces the idea that the drinks industry is unwilling to discuss real change to the status quo.

The food industry should take note of the current plight of its counterparts in the alcohol sector but also continue to learn from its own current successes.

Lobbyists and politicians will continue to look for quick, easy fixes to complex solutions such as alcohol abuse and obesity.

The food industry must continue to be seen as the driving force behind seeking a solution. Only that way will it be able to set its own agenda.