Now is the time for action on promotions

30 April 2024
In February, the Scottish Government launched their latest consultation on proposed regulations to restrict price and location promotions of food and drink products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).

This is the fourth consultation on the subject in five years, and during this time rates of overweight and obesity have continued to rise while health inequalities have also increased. The latest data point to a worrying trajectory. More than two-thirds of adults (67%) in Scotland are living with overweight and obesity, and a third of children aged 2-15 are at risk of overweight and obesity. Importantly, these outcomes are strongly linked to deprivation, with both adults and children in the most deprived fifth of the population much more likely to have or be at risk of overweight and obesity.

Yet, despite these worrying figures, the food and drink industry continue to argue that regulations on promotions are punitive, ineffective and will be damaging to their profits, instead arguing for a continuation of the current system of self-regulation. This industry playbook rhetoric ignores the fact that self-regulation is unreliable and is a significant contributing factor to the rising trajectory of obesity rates. Mandatory regulatory action is needed to comprehensively change the food environment, reverse current health trends, and address the commercial influences on our food environment.


Why does regulating promotions of HFSS products matter? 

Promotions of unhealthy HFSS products are ubiquitous. They can be found online, in retail stores and across out of home settings. These promotions cause people to buy more than they normally would (on average around a fifth more) and are heavily skewed towards unhealthy products. Data from Food Standards Scotland reports just under a quarter of all food and drink sold in Scotland is bought on promotion and, significantly, a higher proportion of discretionary HFSS products are sold in this way – accounting for over a third of all sales of some products including savoury snacks (37%) and confectionary (34%). Promotions influence consumer preferences for unhealthy food, change shopping habits, and normalise overconsumption and excess.


What types of promotions should be covered?

Promotions can be categorised into two groups: price promotions and location promotions. There are a wide range of different price promotions, including temporary price reductions (TPRs), multi-buys, and meal deals. Location promotions include placement of items at checkouts, aisle ends and other prominent locations that increase the visibility of targeted products. Each of these types of promotion can be seen across a range of settings (e.g. small shops, online shops) and often occur simultaneously.

The wide array of promotions currently in use strongly indicates a need for regulations on as many types of promotions as possible to ensure the overall effectiveness of any regulations. Evidence from a modelling study carried out by the Scottish Government found a powerful impact from restrictions on all price promotions of unhealthy HFSS products, reducing energy intake by more than 600 kcal per person per week. Crucially, the same analysis also found that by limiting restrictions to only multi-buy deals (as will be the case in England) the calorie reduction figure would fall to 155 kcal per person per week. With some research indicating that modest reductions in daily calorie consumption could significantly reduce obesity prevalence, policymakers should maximise this opportunity for public health and introduce blanket HFSS promotions restrictions.

Elsewhere, initial findings from England on location promotions specifically suggest that restrictions have led to non-HFSS products generally seeing stronger sales results compared to HFSS products, again highlighting the benefit of this policy.

Modelled calorie reductions for multi-buy restrictions vs all types of price promotion restrictions

From the perspective of food industry stakeholders, blanket restrictions would also create a level and fair playing field. Food manufacturers and retailers would not have to face any difficulties caused by competitors offering specific types of promotions that others couldn’t. Plus, companies can still benefit from promotional sales on healthier products.


Where do small businesses fit in?

The Scottish Government is proposing that only businesses with 50 or more employees would be included in the regulations. This approach would mean many businesses in Scotland, especially from the out of home sector (e.g. small restaurants, takeaways), would be missed and the policy not reaching its full potential. On top of this, evidence suggests deprived communities are often more reliant on small convenience stores and this exemption would prevent these areas from seeing the policy’s benefits, while also potentially widening health inequalities.

Positively, shops that are a part of a franchise or larger symbol group (e.g. SPAR) will be within scope of the regulations, as the number of employees is being calculated based on the total number employed across all franchise stores, rather than by individual store. This will help to maximise the positive health impacts of the policy.

Obesity Action Scotland supports applying restrictions to food businesses of all sizes, with designated government support to help with implementation in smaller outlets. Such a move should also place greater liability on stakeholders higher up the supply chain to provide more healthy products.


Have your say

After many years of delay, it is good to see this policy on harmful food promotions getting to its final stages. Now is the time to put people’s long-term health above industry profits, but any action taken must be strong enough so that this does not become a missed opportunity.

The consultation on the details of restricting HFSS promotions is still open if you would like to submit your views. The deadline for submissions is the 21st May 2024.