The UK’s Conservative Party may only have a working majority in the House of Commons of 17 but, with the Labour Party struggling to convince voters it could be a credible alternative, the country could see five more years of Tory government after 2020. Ben Cooper weighs up what could shape Conservative thinking on UK food and health policy over the next decade.

Neither the UK government’s decision to delay further the publication of its child obesity strategy nor the reported (though not officially confirmed) decision to rule out a sugar tax will have surprised participants in the diet and health debate.

Both decisions speak to the difficulty the Conservative government is facing in determining policy on obesity and diet-related health issues. 

Many governments are under pressure to act in response to rising diet-related ill health but the clamour for action in the UK has arguably reached unprecedented levels, with vocal and effective campaigning from a consensus of public health and medical bodies, spearheaded latterly by TV chef Jamie Oliver.

While this is not the only piece of government business that will be postponed until after the EU referendum on 23 June, some commentators believe David Cameron leapt at the chance to park the strategy for a few months during which time some of the campaign’s momentum may dissipate.

The need for action

Resisting campaigner demands for a sugar tax possibly makes the inclusion of controls on advertising more likely, with Cameron keen to show his commitment in no uncertain terms, as a comment from UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in February bears out. “David Cameron has said that if it isn’t a sugar tax then it needs to be something equally robust, but he has not taken a sugar tax off the table,” Hunt said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

As Jennifer Powers, advocacy partner at UK public relations firm Westbourne Communications, suggests in a recent paper, Conservatives “feel compelled to act”, faced with the scale of the problem and concerted campaigning pressure.

Powers sees increasing support within Conservative ranks for more interventionist policies. While “principled libertarians” and “free market types” remain implacably opposed, One Nation Conservatives look more favourably on interventionist approaches, particularly seeing the economic disparity in diet-related ill health. Many Conservatives, however, will still place a defining emphasis on being pro-business, seeking solutions through collaborative and voluntary actions in order to support the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. For similar reasons, the Party’s “countryside wing” sees policies to reduce meat consumption as a threat to farming. 

While the public health/campaigner consensus has unquestionably set the agenda in recent years, the child obesity strategy, as well as food and health policy for the rest of this Parliament to 2020 and probably into a likely third term in office, will be shaped by this spectrum of Conservative thinking.

Carrot and stick 

At a panel debate to launch the Westbourne paper, Chris Snowdon, director of Lifestyle Economics at UK free-market thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs, expressed doubt that any fiscal measures would be effective in changing diets, suggesting in an affluent country such as the UK, where food only represents on average around 11% of the household budget, most people’s buying habits would not be influenced by the relatively minor differences in cost that would result. 

“I am very sceptical about whether there’s any economic levers that government can pull to reduce obesity or really to change people’s diet in any significant way or in any particular direction,” Snowdon said. He added later incentivising the purchase of fruits and vegetables through subsidies, often put forward as a more positive and possibly more effective fiscal measure than taxing unhealthy foods, would be unworkable. 

However, Snowdon believes the sugar tax is being deliberately kept alive as a “stick” to motivate industry to engage in voluntary measures probably relating to promotions or labelling, and spur commitment to reformulation.

The carrot and stick approach eventually worked well for President Obama’s efforts to address childhood obesity in the US. Commissioning government agencies to look at mandatory restrictions on children’s food advertising prompted industry to tighten up voluntary guidelines.

Powers believes the UK government is likely to need a “headline measure to announce to assuage health campaigners that they are not ignoring obesity and sugar”. 

She sees price promotion as an area where it may look to take action, particularly as this was a key recommendation in the Public Health England report on sugar reduction published last year.

“Items on promotion make up 40% of UK expenditure on food and drink, and are estimated to increase the amount of sugar consumed by 6% overall,” Powers writes. “This was the first recommendation of Public Health England, and it is easy to see this alongside further restrictions on marketing, including digital advertising, forming the core of the Government’s strategy.” 

However, Powers expects the Government at least in the short term “to stick to methods less media worthy than a sugar tax but potentially more effective and with less risk of hampering Britain’s food industry”. These would include voluntary reformulation, further awareness campaigns and example-setting through the public sector, along with improved weight management programmes for those at greatest risk, possibly taking advantage of new technology.

Are advertising restrictions being considered?

One reason why Cameron may be torn over food and health policy is a sneaking suspicion that firmer action, if judiciously directed, may actually be a vote winner, particularly in the all-important middle ground. Tighter controls on advertising might fit into this category, and are thought to be under serious consideration.

Campaigners have long called for advertising of foods high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) to be controlled during family programming which attracts larger children’s audiences than dedicated children’s TV, where controls do exist.

Opponents claim such restrictions would curtail public rights to see commercial communications, but the freedom to be bombarded with messages artfully created to manipulate them is not one people probably value that highly. Advertising is already regulated and there is a public expectation that it should be. The necessary additional controls could be enacted through the co-regulatory structures already in place. 

A watershed ban would risk being branded as “nanny statist”, but of the tougher options the UK government might consider it is arguably the most acceptable. It would be a strong statement, answering a key campaigner demand, but is ostensibly a relatively “light touch” piece of regulation, possibly with some middle-ground voter appeal. Significantly, the centrist Liberal Democrat Party has adopted a ban on the advertising of HFSS foods before the 9pm watershed as official policy.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice, the body responsible for the country’s advertising code, is to launch a public consultation on rules governing non-broadcast ads for food. The move comes amid concern about changes in children’s media habits. Children are, for example, watching more content online. The consultation will consider whether restrictions are needed on the targeting of HFSS foods in the rules governing non-broadcast ads.

Backing voluntary measures

If, as expected, Conservative food and health policy continues to place primary emphasis on voluntary action, while a campaign to take food companies to task is still receiving widespread public backing, presentation and implementation will unquestionably have to improve on that of the Conservatives’ previous flagship policy on diet and health, the Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD).

Campaigners are often scornful of “last chance saloon” rhetoric, which they say simply means industry has again been let off the hook, but the UK government appears to be steering towards this message. However, the public might equally view this as the government’s last chance to show that voluntary approaches can work.

As a preventive health measure that is business-friendly and focused on voluntary measures, the PHRD arguably should tick many boxes for Conservatives. However, it is widely regarded by campaigners as a sop to industry that has not produced satisfactory progress. Moreover, government enthusiasm for the programme has clearly ebbed away since its launch in 2011. 

Indeed, at the Westbourne event, both Dan Hooper, government relations manager at Tesco, and Tim Rycroft, corporate affairs director at the Food and Drink Federation, suggested the UK government had allowed the PHRD to wither on the vine. “From the point of view of my members it’s the government that’s walked away from it and not us,” Rycroft said. 

Hooper articulated why discredited voluntary measures can be toxic, both for governments and for industry. Describing the PHRD as “a sort of purgatory between regulation and laissez-faire”, Hooper suggested companies that had engaged had not been given sufficient credit for the progress achieved, while those that have not risk little in terms of reputational damage.

Hooper said “PHRD Mark 2” would have to bring together all stakeholders, including health bodies. This was supposedly a key strength of the original Responsibility Deal concept, and the PHRD’s lack of credibility with non-industry stakeholders is clearly one of its principal weaknesses. Crucially, Hooper said, government must “put some political weight” behind future voluntary measures.  

The failure of the PHRD to deliver sufficient progress and to retain broad support underlines that voluntary measures cannot be viewed simply as passing responsibility over to industry. They require constant nurturing and support from government, along with a credible readiness to regulate should industry not make the required progress. 

The PHRD would appear to serve as an example of what not to do, though will not be taken, by Conservatives at any rate, as conclusive evidence that voluntary, collaborative approaches cannot work. If policymaking is in part about learning from mistakes, the PHRD is a fairly rich seam for the Conservatives to mine.