To sustain me on a journey last week, I picked up a copy of Private Eye and one of those single fingers of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut at a branch of WH Smith at London’s City Thameslink station. Somewhat incongruously, the cashier asked me if I wanted a bar of chocolate at half price, a special offer for purchasers of magazines. The offered bar was about the size of one of those brass plates that used to be welded to the sides of steam engines – and felt like it weighed about the same. I said I didn’t want that much chocolate, so perhaps I could have the small bar at half price.
He countered that the huge bar only worked out at 7p more, so I would be getting a lot more chocolate for my money. I relented, determined to eat the equivalent of the small bar myself and give the balance to my children, or possibly any needy members of the Conservative Party I bumped into, waiting nervously for the result of the Hartlepool by-election. As it turned out, I ate the entire bar myself before reaching Brighton and felt slightly sick for the rest of the day – though, in fairness, that may have been because I happened to witness Tony Blair’s speech.
I felt that this was a small parable for our times, as I watched health secretary John Reid and culture secretary Tessa Jowell applauding the Prime Minister. It was these two, I learn, who had leant on confectionery companies sufficiently persuasively to make them announce last week that they are to drop “giant-size” bars as a means of tackling the obesity scare. This was being hailed as the start of responsible initiatives on the part of food manufacturers and retailers for keeping the nation healthy. Clearly, no one as yet has told WH Smith about these initiatives.
But I hold no ill-will towards the retailer for its assistance in my self-engorgement. The decision to go for the larger bar was entirely mine and freely made – WH Smith simply made it more economical. I am reasonably well educated and consequently know the health risks attached to eating chocolate with a weight equivalent to one of my major body parts. I am not part of a socio- economic grouping that is exploited by this kind of special offer. I simply like eating Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut. I think life would be diminished without it.
I have long argued it suits the Government to allow food companies to take the rap for our expanding waistlines. It isn’t the wealthy middle classes, with our exotic Waitrose vegetables, gyms and health farms, that are generally obese – it’s the under-class of the sink estates, with little budget, knowledge of diet or, indeed, will to live, that is suffering. A government that has made its priorities education and social inclusion hardly wants to concede to this simple observation, so it stands to reason that it must be the food industry’s fault.
But I have noticed a shift of emphasis in the obesity debate lately. Reid was on the radio ahead of the Labour Party Conference telling us that the issue was much more “complicated” than simply banning fattening foods. Yet you know that, behind the scenes, the easy hit for ministers is to beat up on food companies. Apparently, Reid and Jowell came up with the wizard wheeze that the food companies would agree to pay a levy into a blind trust that would then demonise their products by commissioning advertising that would tell people not to buy them.
Unsurprisingly, confectionery makers are staying close to the government nurse, for fear of finding something worse. This is gesture politics of the worst kind. But there are signs that the Government is – yet again – underestimating the intelligence of British consumers.
Now, you would expect businesses to be ahead of the curve, while politicians remain firmly behind it and there are a couple of indications that the business world is beginning to recognise that our society realises healthier lifestyles are about personal choice, not about banning products. Importantly, they are recognising that there is an equation between energy taken into our bodies and the energy taken out in exercise.
The first is that the Prudential Corporation is introducing a range of “save-as-you-sweat” discounts on life insurance for those who give up smoking, eat healthily and even join gyms. The second is that private equity house Cinven has emerged as a possible bidder for exercise-kit retailer JJB Sports – Cinven pursues undervalued opportunities and will have research that shows JJB’s time has come. The difference here is that business sees the future in healthier lifestyle choices – the Government sees it in banning whatever it sees fit to.
There was an opportunity here for the Conservative Party in Bournemouth this week. But they have their own healthier-lifestyle choices to make.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon