Food and Behaviour Research

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27 November 2014 - The Conversation - Time for business to deal with its costly sugar problem

Isabelle Szmigin, Professor of Marketing at University of Birmingham

We need to reassess where responsibility lies for obesity and who should be spending the money to tackle it.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which advises the National Health Service in England, has published new guidelines on tackling obesity, which it says is an “immense problem”. They say the number of obese people having weight loss surgery needs to double or triple to cut the long term costs of type 2 diabetes.

These guidelines follow a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, which found that obesity costs the world nearly as much as war, armed violence and terrorism put together. The report made a number of suggestions that have been lacking in many analyses of this huge issue.

Irrational beings

The report identified that while business has been increasingly implicated in the obesity issue, individual responsibility remains the mantra of many reports. While reports continue to exhort individual responsibility and control, the Body Mass Index of the West continues to rise. It is clearly difficult for people to understand what the best option is when it comes to food.

Research has shown that humans are only partly rational and often respond automatically and routinely to the demands of their immediate environment. Contrast this with the number of policies that assume individuals are capable of making the virtuous decision of changing their behaviour of their own accord.

While the McKinsey report has not ruled out the role of individual responsibility, it has taken a more holistic line on the obesity issue and highlighted the problems inherent in some current initiatives. One such initiative is the UK coalition government’s Responsibility Deal, a voluntary scheme where companies sign up to pledges which include reduction in salt, fat and sugar. The Responsibility Deal has received criticism from public health leaders as companies have done little to change their production and marketing of unhealthy foods because of it, and some have even reneged on pledges.

Another problem with business’ current role in the obesity crisis has been recognised in that a single company opting for an intervention runs the risk of harming its competitive position. Similarly, signing up to a pledge that all companies agree on inevitably leads to watered down measures to avoid harming collective competitive positions.

So, while Coca Cola has committed to promoting its low calorie drinks more, it continues to market its calorific classic brand, and its newly launched Coca Cola Life is only 50% less calorie-loaded than classic Coke. We must think seriously as to whether fighting obesity should be a marketing opportunity in this way – why not just take classic Coke off the market or reduce its sugar content, without a new product launch? The answer is obvious.