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25 November 2022

Why public health policy needs to refocus

Addressing the causes of unhealthy lifestyles will be a game-changer.

Amid the turbulence and political drama of recent months, there has been uncertainty around the future direction of public health policy. There have been big shifts back and forth in the UK government’s efforts to help people lead healthier lifestyles, none more so than with the “anti-obesity” agenda and long-promised restrictions on food and drink that is high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Plans were delayed due to the cost-of-living crisis, then the restrictions were going to be scrapped, and now it’s unclear which direction the new leadership will take.

Given the current economic situation, it’s understandable why clarity on the government’s direction on healthier lifestyles has not yet been forthcoming, but this needs to change. Improving the health of the nation isn’t just a societal priority but will help reduce economic pressures in the longer term. Today, nearly two-thirds of adults in England are overweight, with costs tied to loss of productivity and increased social care estimated to be up to £7.5bn.

That’s why the New Statesman and Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I (SBF GB&I) – the makers of Lucozade, Ribena and Orangina – recently brought together a panel of parliamentarians, industry experts, academics, and health campaigners to debate how we can work together to encourage healthier diets and active lifestyles.

Healthier diets

A large focus of the debate was on how to deliver reformulation, innovation and choice for consumers. SBF GB&I started reformulating its drinks back in 2013, long before the HFSS restrictions or “sugar taxes” were considered. Today, all its drinks are non-HFSS, meaning it has removed over 98bn calories and 25,000 tonnes of sugar from consumers’ diets, all while matching or improving the taste. The company has launched low- and no-calorie alternatives for every brand, providing choice for consumers, and invested over £13m into its factory to bolster capacity to produce new lower-sugar drinks and brands.

This work aligns to SBF GB&I’s “Growing for Good” vision of having a positive impact on the lives of its consumers. But it is also aligned with the findings from McKinsey’s comprehensive 2014 report into obesity, which found that reformulation is one of the most impactful interventions available.

While industry has been making progress, there was consensus that government policy over the past decade has not always provided the stable environment that would enable businesses to invest the time and money necessary for successful innovation and reformulation. As Nikki Pegg, research and development director of SBF GB&I, commented: “It takes a number of months, if not years, to develop a product and it gets very tricky if goalposts are changing throughout this process, especially when we’re also having to balance the needs of retailers and our consumers.”

The “on/off” approach to anti-obesity agendas has therefore created uncertainty and undermined confidence, becoming a barrier to further progress. It was noted that governments send mixed signals by seeking to encourage reformulation and innovation through policies but failing to publicly support the tools required for such work, including sweeteners, which are thoroughly tested and confirmed as safe by regulatory authorities around the world.

It was agreed more could be done to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as they often have neither the time nor financial resources to reformulate. One participant referenced the Scottish Government’s Reformulation for Health programme, which has helped SME food companies reformulate their products since 2019. If mirrored by the UK government, this programme has the potential to improve diet and health across the whole nation.

Finally, there was consensus that industry needs clear targets for reformulation. The introduction of the 2004/05 Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM), which categorises food and drink that is HFSS, was welcomed as it gave industry a clear goal and one which is now widely used. It was agreed that realistic and stable targets are needed to incentivise businesses to invest time and resources into developing healthier product lines. Most believed that all UK nations should continue to use the current NPM, with concerns raised that divergence among the devolved nations could create supply chain complexity and potential costs for consumers.

Promoting sport and physical activity

Alongside discussing diets, participants agreed that innovation from manufacturers needs to be accompanied by wider measures, such as promoting physical activity. Indeed, recent YouGov polling released at the debate found 69 per cent of MPs believe sport and physical activity are the most important ways to encourage healthier lifestyles.

This is an approach already adopted by SBF GB&I – a £30m investment into its “Made to Move” campaign resulted in 1.5 million people across the UK doing more activity over three years. Company representatives also outlined how they leverage the power of the Lucozade Sport brand, the 15th most culturally relevant sports brand in the world (Fan Intelligence Index, 2019), to help unlock potential including by growing women’s football, and being the London Marathon’s longest-serving incumbent partner.

Participants reflected on physical activity levels, which are lowest in the most deprived communities. There was a call for government to identify and address the societal challenges and inequalities that currently limit people’s ability to be active.

Born Barikor, founder and CEO of community exercise organisation Our Parks – which is sponsored by Lucozade Sport – raised the importance of understanding exactly what it means to be “active” or “inactive”, acknowledging the variation in definitions. He suggested an easily understandable, universal system should be introduced, akin to the “five a day” target for fruit and vegetables, and this was met with agreement.

Participants also discussed how physical activity is often treated as a mechanism to address obesity, neglecting its overall role in good health and mental well-being. The need to recognise these alternative benefits was emphasised, with some participants calling for a renewed focus on “establishing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle”. This was presented as an alternative view for the government to adopt when approaching health policy.

Ending the session, participants reiterated their calls for a shift in policy focus from “obesity” to “healthier lifestyles”, and a need to address causes not consequences. As Carol Robert, chief operating officer at SBF GB&I, concluded, while there is no silver bullet for encouraging better health, “there is a genuine opportunity for both business and government to think about the wider equation, which includes both diet and active lifestyles”.

Attendees at the roundtable discussion included: Carol Robert, chief operating officer, SBF GB&I; Nikki Pegg, research and development director, SBF GB&I; Born Barikor, CEO, Our Parks; Lord Bethell, former minister for innovation; Dr Adam Briggs, senior policy fellow, The Health Foundation; Tom Burton, national partnership lead (health and inequality), Sport England; Kate Halliwell, chief scientific officer, Food and Drink Federation; Dr Dolly Theis, visiting researcher, MRC Epidemiology Unit