Tougher controls on food high in sugar, fat and salt will prove irresistible to an incoming government amid spiralling public health spending on obesity, Prestige Purchasing chairman David Read argues

In 1960, almost 60% of British adults smoked. As more and more evidence emerged over time of the impact of smoking on early mortality, successive UK governments have endeavoured to reduce the prevalence of smoking, leading to a level around 13% currently.

In the last 25-years, there has been a steady decline in the death rate from heart disease, strokes and most major cancers – all of which are strongly linked to smoking.

Between 1978 and today the minimum excise tax (per 1000 sticks) has increased 38-fold. Investments in education on health risks, packaging labelling, and heavy restrictions on public use, have all added weight to a huge transformation which has saved the NHS billions of pounds, and prevented thousands of premature deaths.

So, what is there to learn from this within the food and drink sector?

The current NHS budget is around £170bn (excluding £47bn of ring-fenced Covid funding) – equivalent to around 10% of GDP being spent on the nation’s health.

One of the largest single contributors to these costs is obesity – currently at £6bn but predicted to be £10bn by 2050.

The government’s Health Survey for England 2021 estimated that 25.9% of adults in England are obese and a further 37.9% are overweight (but not obese). These numbers have nearly trebled since 1960 and the trend is increasing, particularly amongst the young.

Ultra-processed foods (UPF’s) are food and drink products that have undergone specified types of food processing, usually by very large international manufacturing corporations.

These foods are designed to be convenient, eaten on the go, hyperpalatable and appealing to consumers. Most importantly, they are the most profitable segment of these companies’ portfolios – because of the low-cost of their ingredients. At the heart of their manufacture is usually a high proportion of sugar, fat and salt.

In 2018, the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL) was introduced and has been a major factor in creating reformulation of products. For example, Public Health England (PHE) reported a 28.8% reduction in total sugar content per 100ml between 2015 and 2018 for the drinks subject to be included in the SDIL among retailer own brand and manufacturer branded products.

But obesity numbers are still rising, demonstrating both the scale and the complexity of the overall problem.

Faced with high levels of public debt, a dysfunctional NHS where costs are spiralling, and a successful sugar reduction pilot in the form of SDIL, any new government (particularly one with more liberal views) may find the temptation to adopt a tobacco-like programme of reforms irresistible. Cutting costs, improving the nation’s health, and raising new income through taxation may look to them like a ‘no-brainer’.

There is little doubt in my mind that the focus of any new legislation will likely be the UPFs mentioned earlier. Anyone who has tried to buy a healthy snack in a retail environment will know only too well how choice is skewed against them. The risk though is that hospitality also gets impacted, perhaps by taxation aimed at high levels of sugar, fat and salt in foods.

The current government has been distinctly reluctant to intervene with this kind of programme. They have cited the freedom of the individual to choose what they eat as their reasoning, but I suspect that it has been linked just as much to a fear of stoking food inflation – the price of food being one of the most common causes of governmental collapse.

But this year we have seen double-digit food inflation, and an incoming cabinet may feel that as inflation falls there is a unique opportunity to change the food system.

Amid the post-Covid chaos there are many moving and unstable parts to the economy and our food system. But of one thing I am confident: the wind is blowing increasingly strongly in favour of a reduction of sugar, fat and salt as a proportion of our total diet. And good entrepreneurs always keep a wary eye on the weathervane.