Scotland breaks new ground with proposed ban on promotion of junk food

Last week was a big week for those of us interested in obesity and food policy, with the release of the Scottish Government’s draft Obesity Plan. The Food Foundation did a brief analysis to see how it measures up to HM Government’s strategy on childhood obesity released August 2016. While HM Government’s plan is only focused on children, and Scotland’s scope is much wider, both have been led by public health but have aspects which cut across several departments.The Scottish plan addresses and sets out clear actions on an impressively wide range of factors that are contributing to obesity: food promotions, advertising and labelling, the nutritional quality of food made and sold in a variety of settings, setting the stage for a healthy diet early in childhood, and improving how obesity prevention is incorporated into health services, among others.

In several instances Scotland wants to make sure that UK wide programmes work harder to deliver impact (e.g. ensuring there is transparency on how sugar tax funds are allocated, and ensuring Healthy Start is tailored to Scottish needs). Most notably Scotland wants to push hard for a ban on advertising of HFSS foods up to the 9pm watershed (something which was top of the list of recommendations in the Food Environment Policy Index we developed for England).

But there’s some new and exciting proposals in this plan as well, most notably plans to restrict multi-buy and other promotions on unhealthy foods and drinks. This is very important as PHE’s analysis shows that we buy 40% of our food and drink on promotion and they estimate it causes us to buy 20% more in the category on promotion than we otherwise would. We are not aware of any other country with such restrictions, and there are none listed in WCRF’s NOURISHING database, so Scotland could be a leading example of the impact of getting rid of multi-buy and other promotions. Particularly as they’re incorporating plans to monitor and evaluate the impact of their obesity plan.

It is really good to see that some of the initiatives within the plan come with proposed funding streams. Their £42m commitment, over five years, to supported weight management programmes, for example, sets a really high bar in backing up their intentions for turning this plan into action. It is also notable that they’ve included a section on city and urban planning, which although it isn’t hugely developed or specific in its description, gives a positive signal that the government is taking on board recommendations to move obesity policy beyond those initiatives aimed at consumers and towards actually creating a healthier environment for citizens to live in.

In our analysis comparing the Scottish plan to HM Government’s 2016 ‘Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action’, there are many broad commonalities and some key differences, particularly in the details. The Scottish plan hasn’t yet specified an end date, likely as it is still in proposal form, and specific plans for monitoring and evaluation have not been released. HM Government’s plan aims to achieve its actions in 10 years (2016-2026), though no impact targets are set.

Both plans propose strengthening existing food labels and public sector procurement, include provisions for reformulation and physical activity and include/strengthen a sugary drinks levy. Both include some discussion of health inequalities, though the Scottish plan proposes stronger measures on this, and both recommend undertaking work on the Healthy Start programme.  Notably absent from HM Government’s plan are actions aimed at restricting advertising and promotions, as well as (urban) planning and specific descriptions of how the plan itself will be led, monitored and evaluated. And HM Government’s plan has a larger emphasis on product development, reformulation and innovation compared to the Scottish plan, which takes a wider approach to obesity.

However, neither plan considers the potential role of agriculture policy in influencing the relative price of and access to different foods, such as fruit and vegetables.  Given this is an area of policy which needs urgent attention while the Agriculture Bill is being drafted, this represents a significant missed opportunity.  It’s high time, government leaders in public health were working to influence the food we produce.

The draft Scottish plan is now open for consultation until 31 January 2017 at:

Image from World Obesity Federation © World Obesity