Food and drink industry rejects claims of irresponsibility over obesity and alcoholism

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 21 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d423
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1London

The food and drink industry is not guilty of irresponsibility over the public’s consumption of unhealthy food or excessive alcohol, peers have been told.

Individuals’ choice within a responsible selling environment is crucial, said industry leaders giving evidence during a session of the House of Lords science and technology select committee on 19 January.

The committee was questioning witnesses as part of its inquiry into the use of behaviour change interventions as a means to achieve the government’s policy goals.

Justin King, chief executive of the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, giving evidence, was asked whether Sainsbury’s felt responsibility for encouraging healthier eating behaviour among its customers to reduce obesity.

Mr King replied, “We see ourselves as having an absolute responsibility to help our customers eat healthily and well. We were the first retailer to put front of pack nutritional labelling.”

Sainsbury’s had removed confectionary from its tills in larger stores after customer feedback but had not done so in smaller convenience stores where, he said, mothers shopping with small children were less likely. Fruit and nuts were also placed near tills so customers had choice.

Peers challenged him over this, saying that it verged on being irresponsible because schoolchildren were still likely to be shopping in the convenience stores with chocolate bars placed near tills while they were waiting to be served.

“I don’t believe it is irresponsible,” said Mr King. “We removed confectionary [from] tills because the majority of our customers told us it makes their lives easier. We are not making a moral or ethical judgment in doing that over whether children should or shouldn’t consume confectionary. We think that’s largely a matter for their parents. A chocolate bar can still have a role in a perfectly healthy diet.”

There was a role for government in this area, he said, adding: “We are not against legislation. In fact, in some instances we would positively encourage it. It creates a common and fair playing field for all companies.”

Mark Baird, corporate social responsibility manager at Diageo, the drinks producer, also gave evidence, as his role includes promoting responsible drinking and tackling alcohol related harm.

Mr Baird spoke of various campaigns run by his company aimed at tackling antisocial drinking. One example, targeting 18-24 year olds, had highlighted the risks and consequences of drinking too much.

The committee’s peers asked about the UK government’s plan to introduce a minimum pricing for alcohol in England and the possible effect on people’s drinking behaviour.

“I would suggest that there is a lot of research on minimum pricing, but I contest there isn’t any evidence,” said Mr Baird.

“Nowhere in the world has tried or implemented minimum pricing. Scotland last year would have been the first, had its [legislation] gone through [BMJ 2010;341:c5267, doi:10.1136/bmj.c5267]. Minimum pricing is based on the false notion that it would reduce excessive drinking amongst a minority of the population who drink to excess.”

Peers asked whether there was a need for stronger regulation of alcohol advertising and product placement on television, which some studies had said led to young people drinking more.

Mr Baird said, “In the UK we’re subject to some of the tightest legislation in the world in terms of advertising, and it’s very well regulated.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d423

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