Sugar Sugar: Is extra legislation for the food and drink industry the solution to Scotland's obesity problem?
Ah, honey, honey
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you.”
So sang the Archies in their 1969 hit. Although half a century has passed since their song topped the charts, the Scottish Government believes too many of us in Scotland are still candy girls and boys and consume too much sugar and high fat food.
The Government’s initial consultation, which closed earlier this week, invited comments from interested parties on numerous wide-ranging proposals to address our dependence on “discretionary” high fat, high sugar or salty foods (cakes, biscuits, sweets and soft drinks).
Perhaps the most controversial aspect is the restrictions proposed on the promotion or marketing of such foods, including positioning within shops, value promotions, in store advertising and multiple/promotional pricing.
There is no doubt that across the UK there is a looming health crisis associated with obesity and diet- related chronic diseases. Opinions differ as to how this is best tackled, the role that poverty and deprivation play in limiting consumer choice, and the influence of education in reducing the damage caused by poor health choices. Statistically, UK consumer spending on price promotions is the highest in Europe and price promotion of food and drink in Scotland is skewed towards less healthy categories.
Like any restriction, it will be a balancing act to determine the desired outcomes we are seeking to achieve and the most expedient way to achieve them. Any legislative intervention should be proportionate, reasonable and based on clear evidence. It is barely a year since the “sugar tax” was imposed on high sugar soft drinks – 18p per litre on those with 5-8g of sugar per 100ml, rising to 24p per litre where the product contains more than 8g of sugar per 100ml.
On one view, the consultation poses timely and difficult questions about Scotland's love affair with sugary and high fat bakery products. However, care will need to be taken to ensure the route adopted following consultation does not lead to further divergence between the regulatory regimes north and south of the Border in circumstances where there may, as yet, be no clear evidence of this being the appropriate solution to a complex problem.
The impact of the sugar tax, which was only introduced in April 2018 (though first announced four years ago), has not yet led to a significant reduction in the volume of high sugar products sold as a proportion of all soft drink products in the UK . At the very least, the soft drinks industry could reasonably argue that any restrictions on promotion should follow the threshold set in relation to the sugar tax. This would ensure that manufacturers already working hard to deal with product reformulation and accounting for the sugar tax do not also have to deal with an additional compliance burden in the marketing and pricing of their products. It will potentially be a headache also for retailers, particularly smaller retailers, who may not have the shelf or cooler space to differentiate between low and high sugar alternatives.
The direction of travel is, however, clear across the UK as a whole and indeed the world. Some countries are relying on a tax (for example, certain US states, Ireland, France and South Africa) and others still exploring voluntary reduction initiatives (Spain and Australia). The industry needs to respond to the health consequences of still significant levels of consumption of high sugar/fat products, and potentially find other innovative ways of reformulating products so that consumption of high sugar and high fat products declines naturally.
George Frier is Head of the Food & Drink Group at Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP
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