“In 15 years we have made no progress towards reaching the Scottish Dietary Goals,” noted Food Standards Scotland (FSS) in board meeting papers published this week. “Given the unsustainable current and future obesity prevalence, and the associated personal, societal and economic cost of continuing to fail to achieve change, the case must now be to justify not regulating.”
Obesity is estimated to cost Scotland €2.73bn (£2.37bn), and as such poses a “major risk” to the economy – and the situation is not improving.
FSS singled out the out-of-home sector for particular criticism, whilst noting that retailers and manufacturers have “gone some way” to effect change – progress has been made through salt reduction programmes and voluntary front-of-pack labelling schemes for example. FSS is also happy with the current approach to reformulation, though more challenging time-bound targets are needed; there should also be more support for small and medium-sized businesses so they’re not “left behind”.
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Elsewhere, the regulator is far from convinced industry-led initiatives are working. “Regulation would create a level playing field for industry, and without it, we face the very real prospect of increasing diet-related ill health and unsustainable burdens on the NHS and our economy,” explained FSS chair Ross Finnie.
Lay down the law
Having reviewed “robust evidence” FSS has concluded the “current voluntary approaches alone will not work”. New regulations on promotions for high far, sugar and salt (HFSS) products are deemed “essential and should be taken forward as a priority in Scotland”. The first step will be a full assessment of current legislation.
Tougher laws to limit advertising of unhealthy foods are also needed, FSS claimed. New industry rules to limit the advertising of HFSS products across children’s broadcast media will come into force this July, but the decision to allow use of licensed characters and celebrities to endorse products was a “retrograde step”.
FSS used the new paper to argue that “without regulation to limit the availability, advertising and promotion of HFSS food and drink, insufficient progress will be made towards tackling diet and obesity in Scotland”.
The regulator also criticised the UK Government’s action plan on childhood obesity, which has taken an industry-led approach. The plan “doesn’t go far enough” FSS said as it urged Scottish ministers to “continue to argue strongly to UK ministers for restrictions on children’s advertising and to include the introduction of advertising restrictions on non-broadcast media”.
David Thomson, CEO at the Food and Drink Federation Scotland said he was disappointed that regulation on promotions is seen as a priority. “This is a hugely complicated area for legislation and limits choice,” he said in a statement sent to FoodNavigator. “We would urge FSS to consult widely and effectively on the financial, practical and legal implications of this before seeking to change the law.”
Sweet on wider sugar tax
Health minister Aileen Campbell has already called for advertising laws to be devolved. The Scottish Government has also confirmed that it will publish a national obesity strategy this year – and there are signs that ministers will be pressed to take a tougher line than their counterparts in Westminster.
An expansion of the sugar tax beyond beverages is under consideration. FSS’s response to the UK Government’s consultation on the proposed levy on sugar-sweetened drinks suggested it was “to narrowly focused”. FSS claimed that taxing more foods and drink would be “more effective”.
This week the UK Government said the money raised from the drinks levy – due to be introduced next year – will be less than expected because firms have already set about reformulating their products. Brands such as Irn Bru, Ribena and Lucozade have already committed to reducing sugar content in an effort to reduce the tax or avoid it altogether.
This reaffirms the argument that a broader tax is required, said FSS, as it called on Scottish ministers to “actively consider how a sugar tax may be introduced and at what rate”.
It would be a controversial move. FSS therefore challenged the country’s food industry to come up with an alternative acceptable solution to a sugar tax within 12 months. The sector was also given a similar deadline to develop voluntary measures to “rebalance promotions” in favour of healthier products.
The proposals come against a backdrop of increasing awareness of Scotland’s poor diet and the potential health consequences it brings. Some 61% of Scots know they need to do something to eat more healthily – up by 10% in a year.