Analyst Corner: “Nanny state” or a “force for good”

Amid accusations of a “nanny state”, government proposals for combatting obesity are a matter of rife debate around water cooler stations all over the UK.  I find myself on the side of the “nanny”.  The impact of obesity on health has been studied since as early as the 1950s.  A recent headline that obesity has over-taken smoking as the leading cause of four major cancers in the UK (Cancer Research, 2019), has put the obesity crisis high up on the government agenda.  With past efforts including the reformation of school dinners, bolstered by the Jamie Oliver vs turkey ‘twizzler’ debacle, ‘couch to 5K’ programme, and the sugar tax on soft drinks, the government has now proposed further plans to crackdown on obesity and change the UK’s current trajectory.

A shocking 48% of consumers agree that the government should not intervene when it comes to impacting choice about what foods to consume (HIM, 2019).  Just a quarter of UK consumers share my view that government intervention is welcome, whether it be in the form of legislation around junk food advertising, more stringent calorie labelling on in and out-of-home products, or an altogether move to reduce sugar, fat and salt content in HFSS (high fat sugar & salt) products.   

Now accepted behaviours, such as wearing a seatbelt, elicited similar cries of “nanny state” some 40 years ago.  More recently, there has been the dramatic and incredible shift away from what was one of the biggest public health concerns of the age: smoking.  The government was arguably slow, taking 30 years after the first studies linking tobacco with cancer to introduce advertising bans, taxes and plain packaging regulations.  These changes have contributed to all-time low smoking figures in the UK (PHE, 2018), and despite dreaded fears of a “nanny state”, the way perceptions of smoking have changed for the masses has proved a few things; 1) legislation works 2) the inhabitants of the UK kept their right to choose, 3) the market evolved and overcame.

15 months on from the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and admittedly, the impact that this has had so far on obesity remains unclear.  What is abundantly clear, is that the soft drink category in convenience the UK is booming, with growth of 9% reported in 2018 (Britvic, 2018).  Shop shelves across the retail industry are full of low-sugar alternatives, new and exciting healthier carbonates and premium waters infused with fruits and vitamins.  Coca Cola’s 2019 acquisition of Costa Coffee is a great example of a manufacture adapting and developing around new legislation and consumer expectation.

When asked about where consumers get information around how to be/what is healthy, government advice comes in second, to TV documentaries, (HIM, 2018), with 1 in 5 citing this as their most important source.  As a trusted source of information and an overall duty to elicit change for good, the discussed proposed legislation is necessary to begin to tackle the multi-faceted issue of obesity in the UK.  Manufactures, suppliers and retailers, can look upon proposed change as an opportunity rather than a threat, with many already exploiting the opportunity that lies in exploring healthier products, with consumers already recognising the efforts some brands including Walkers, Kellogg’s and Nature Valley, are going to in developing healthy products (HIM, 2019).