Normal weight is no longer normal. In Scotland, more people are overweight or obese than a healthy weight. The impact of this on our nation’s health and well-being now and into the future is not easily overstated. And general understanding and awareness of this problem has certainly shifted in the past couple of years, which is always a good start. At Cancer Research UK we have a particular interest. If you don’t smoke, then maintaining a healthy weight is most important thing you can do to stack your odds against cancer. Overweight and obesity is linked to 13 cancers and it’s now a top priority for us.
The problem definition is clear, but the solutions are complex and certainly multi-faceted. Behavioural science tells us it’s far easier to change someone’s environment than their relationship with that environment. So population level adjustments to begin the radical reformation of our existing obesogenic environment are vital. Similar approaches to tobacco have led to success and improvement and, though far more complex, we come to obesity with the same perspective.
How we shop
There must be few people in Scotland who manage to get round a supermarket staying true to every last line of their shopping list. Inevitably there’s those bits and pieces you forgot to add. Often though, it’s those promotions and special offers that actually drive our decisions. And too often it’s the enticing promotions that usually offer up high, fat, sugar, salt items at cut prices or greater volumes. The power of supermarket layout and promotion is hugely well evidenced, and it’s no coincidence supermarkets across the world will use common tactics to drive purchasing behaviour. In Scotland this adds up to over a third of our calories being bought via on price promotions: in sugar alone that’s 110 tonnes a day!! Which helps set part of the scene of a nation where the majority of its people are overweight or obese, and highlights an area for further investigation.
Opportunity for change
Significant opportunities to change this are infrequent. However, with the pending development of the Scottish Government’s Diet & Obesity strategy, now is that rare chance to effect serious change. For us that triggered our usual policy thought processes: the gathering of worldwide evidence, the tests of regulatory competence, measuring impact, assessing political palatability of measures, and similarly how they sat with the public. A lot of this was also informed by the excellent Food Standards Scotland Board paper of January 2016. And we worked very closely with the vital leadership organisation Obesity Action Scotland. Through all that, two things became clear: that we would call on Scottish Government to produce a strategy that was brave and comprehensive in its measures; and secondly that we’d hone in on a specific, bold and impactful policy call that would start to challenge the obesogenic environment.
The need for change was apparent, but we were a long way from doing anything about it. The evidence, regulatory potential and overall impact was pointing to action around multibuy junk food promotions. That said, if public opinion said multibuys were so close to the hearts of people and families across Scotland- to a point that it would be politically impossible to change then we may have needed to move to another front. But it didn’t, the majority of public opinion – tested in various polls – showed a majority in favour of regulating these junk food multibuys. People bought them when they didn’t intend to, they ate more when they didn’t want or need to, and they welcomed that bit of extra help to make the healthier choice easier. Armed with this, we found political opinion to be very similar, in the main. In some areas it was more resistant, but this was eventually overcome.
Further testing this potential policy change in the court of industry practice, conclusions of voluntary solutions not being sufficient quickly emerged – indeed some industry bodies argued a regulatory solution was the only way to proceed, if Scottish Government were to.
For over a year we then went about a dual mission: firstly, to raise public and political awareness of the links between obesity and cancer; and secondly, to lobby for a bold, comprehensive strategy, with regulation on junk food multibuys. The more the first part of this succeeded, the more it could breed success in the second. A wide range of tactics and approaches were used across wide range of fronts- Parliament, Scottish Government, media, NHS, celebrities (!) and public – which eventually took us to a place to where we were able to welcome some really strong measures in the strategy consultation. It was a long burn, working across dozens of meetings, conferences, rapid evidence reviews, events, campaigning, parliamentary questions, motions and debates, all underpinned by over 150 national print and broadcast media hits, including editorial support across key newspapers.
“I thank Cancer Research UK, which has thrown itself into ensuring that we all know that there is a well-established link between cancer and obesity and, therefore, a compelling need for action—a point that I discussed with the organisation when we met last week to consider the Government’s commitment to a new diet and obesity strategy.”
– Aileen Campbell MSP, Minister for Public Health
“I pay tribute to organisations such as Cancer Research UK and Obesity Action Scotland, which have campaigned so effectively to ensure that, at last, the Government has recognised the importance of regulation in making the healthy choice the cheaper choice for families.”
– Colin Smyth MSP, Public Health Spokesperson, Scottish Labour Party
“A growing body of evidence points to the action that we must take to make a real and tangible difference to people’s lives, to communities and to the country as a whole. I am grateful to Obesity Action Scotland, Cancer Research UK and others for their important work in this area…
That has set the tone for us to be able to move forward with momentum on this journey of tackling obesity and the challenges that it poses for us.”
– Aileen Campbell MSP, Minister for Public Health
Source: The Orkney News
The end of the beginning
Consultations are exactly that- opportunities to test proposals in wider forums. Which means we need to not only maintain our strong support for the brave measures, but also make sure this support is spread far and wide. We’re a long way from home, and it’s vital that all with any interest in improving Scotland’s obesity problems speaks up to support strong measures. The Scottish Cancer Prevention Network will be vital to mobilising their huge network for this job. As we now see MUP alcohol close to implementation, the diet and obesity strategy is proposing some similarly brave things – let’s all help make them a reality.
Author: Gregor McNie, Senior Public Affairs Manager (Devolved Nations) at Cancer Research UK.