Will lower levels of obesity reduce appetite for change?

Perceived progress in the battle against childhood obesity is a greater threat to Change4Life than next year’s General Election

Much has been the impact of the Change4Life anti-obesity coalition forged between government and industry that health secretary Andy Burnham was last week summoned to the White House to advise President Barack Obama on how the US might introduce a similar programme.

As Burnham himself remarked: “Change4Life is catching the mood of the times.” It is indeed. Our own obesity problems are like a mooncast shadow compared with those in the US.

All the more so now that the brakes are being put on the UK’s obesity trend. The well-respected National Heart Forum has just revised downwards its UK childhood obesity predictions for 2020.

Superficially, these findings are an unqualified endorsement of government policy and industry self-restraint. But the NHF bases its predictions on official Health Survey data covering the period 2000-2007. The astute observer will note that the cut-off date of the Health Survey data precedes the launch of the £75m Change4Life programme, which dates to an M&C Saatchi TV ad campaign first aired in January 2009.

In other words, as Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum puts it: “We will have to wait another two or three years to see if this is a trend or just a blip.”

Let’s explore this point a little further. Coalitions – such as the one that underpins Change4Life – are born of an often-fragile consensus, which overrides the otherwise diverse interests of its partners. Once the common threat is perceived to diminish, cracks frequently appear that threaten to undermine the achievement of the overall objective (in this case, the reduction of the number of obese and overweight children to 2000 levels by 2020).

There are at least two threats to this coalition. The first is explicitly political. If Labour loses power after 13 years in office, would an incoming Conservative administration tear up the concordat with industry and start again?

The answer is no. The Tories have always tended to be hands-off where business is concerned, preferring voluntary restraint to heavy regulation, and there is no reason to think things will be any different this time round.

A regime of voluntary guidelines is already in place, with the Change4Life programme its central emblem. Advertisers and commercial television effectively won the ideological battle against the interventionists in 2006, when they dissuaded Ofcom from introducing a watershed ban on so-called junk food advertising.

The best guide to Tory thinking on this subject are the findings of the Public Health Commission, which was set up late last year with Unilever UK chairman Dave Lewis as its pilot. Shadow health minister Andrew Lansley, whose initiative it was, has promised to abide by its recommendations.

The “Responsibility Deal” enshrined within them is nothing less than a continuation of the existing concordat between industry and government under another name. The document promises a more “holistic” approach to public health that, in Lewis’s words, tackles “the confusion caused by the plethora of unconnected and disjointed public health initiatives currently at work in the UK”.

Coalitions – such as the one that underpins Change4Life – are born of an often-fragile consensus, which overrides the otherwise diverse interests of its partners. Once the common threat is perceived to diminish, cracks frequently appear that threaten to undermine the achievement of the overall objective

Particularly interesting, from an advertiser point of view, is the pledge not to extend further the restrictions implemented by Ofcom. Note, however, that the price will be a “voluntary agreement, extending across all media [my italics], which balances freedom to advertise products with specific cross-industry and government action to promote improved diet.”

“All media” hints at a determination (which will go down well with pressure groups) to consider not just advertising but marketing in its broadest context. It could mean extending restrictions to packaging; it almost certainly means dealing with the currently unregulated editorial content of websites, which some food brands have cynically exploited in contravention of the spirit of the advertising code.

On closer inspection, the Tory position on this matter is not so very different from the present Government’s. The Department of Health is currently drawing up “Voluntary Principles” that specifically tackle “non-regulated” areas of marketing (like internet content). The DoH has promised to appoint an independent consultancy to finalise these “principles” by the end of this year. Whether they will ever be implemented, given the imminence of a General Election, remains to be seen.

Which brings me to a second potential weakness in the coalition between government and industry. Sensing a slowing momentum in the obesity trend, will food manufacturers now be less willing to co-operate? Business4Life – an associated £200m industry-wide initiative devised by the Advertising Association and scheduled to run up to the London Olympics in 2012 – suggests not. Now that Change4Life has gained traction, food and soft drinks manufacturers are only too happy to ride on its coat-tails as part of their corporate social responsibility remit. A good case in point is the recent Pepsi Play4Life campaign featuring footballers Frank Lampard and Thierry Henry, which was scheduled to coincide with the DoH’s sponsorship of The Simpsons on Channel 4 (MW 5 October).

There will be far more on this subject in a conference organised by the Food Advertising Unit arm of the AA. I must declare an interest, I shall be chairing “Food Advertising: Time for a healthy debate” at Altitude, Millbank in London on 26 November. For more information, email aa@adassoc.org.uk

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