Survival of the Blandest | Slippery Slope of Regulation

Regulation started with tobacco – will food and drink brands be next?

Brandless packaging, disconcerting sludge-green wrappers, horrific photo-warnings; as tobacco regulations tighten, there’s a chance that several household food and drink brands will receive the same treatment.

First they came for the tobacco companies…

In these uncertain times, where government regulations have now impacted on an entire industry category, debate rages around the influence of the ‘nanny state’. As a nation, we smoke, consume sugar and indulge in other activities that are bad for our health. Although the resultant strain on our health service is to be acknowledged, is restricting consumer choice our future?

Anti-tobacco campaigning was a gradual process. Billboard advertising was banned in 2003, sponsoring global sports (such as Formula One) was banned in 2005, and smoking in public places was banned in 2007. Following the public smoking ban in the UK, cigarette sales dropped nearly 7% in a month.

Now cigarettes come in plain packaging, plastered with health warnings and sold in larger pack sizes to discourage teenagers and ‘social smokers’.

In addition to these changes, the e-cigarette industry has also resulted in over 1,000,000 people ‘vaping’ as a means to quit smoking; a number that will only increase with time.

An original approach

Visiting the largest food and drink industry event (IFE) last month, I was staggered to see JTI (Japanese Tobacco International) at one of the stands. Our conversation covered the steady decline in tobacco branding over the last few decades and whether the same will happen to food and drink.

JTI’s motivation for exhibiting at IFE was the ways that government regulation has affected their brand, their sales and their consumers – none of it positive – and the impact it may have on food and drink. What impressed me was their method of tracking government white papers for similarities between their experience and other sectors, which had revealed astonishing parallels.

Killing with choice

I often question the intelligence of my husband for smoking, but who am I to take away his choice? He explains his habit in simple enough terms – he smokes because he wants to, because he enjoys it.

Now, let’s compare this to the experience of buying a can of Coca Cola. The same reason applies. I buy it because it makes me feel good. I’m a consumer making a choice. When you get down to the fundamentals of consumer behaviour, there seems to be little difference.

However, in the UK we do currently suffer from too much sugar in our food and drinks, creating a financial strain on our collective health, and therefore on the NHS.

In fact, more money is currently spent reacting to obesity and sugar-related health issues than is spent on smoking-related illness.

The cost of regulation

In light of the Ontario Medical Association’s statement saying, “the lessons learnt from the strategies of the tobacco control movement should be applied to the fight against obesity,” from April 2018, a new levy will be applied to soft drinks. Any products containing more than 5g of sugar per 100ml and a higher rate for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml. In real terms this means an extra 8p for my can of Coca Cola, and the levy is expected to raise £520m in the first year.

Similar strategies are emerging in the alcohol industry too. In May 2016, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) published a report on Alcohol Marketing Regulation. The report draws parallels with the sugar tax as a blueprint for global regulation, stating that, “the agreement should be modelled after the… Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to support efforts to move towards a comprehensive ban on alcohol marketing.”

So, should the food and drink industries attempt to support the tobacco industry in their goals to block the ‘nanny state’ from interfering further? Will they go unsupported due to many people’s moral objection to the sale of tobacco?

Even with these various pressures, the global tobacco industry is worth around US$770 billion (with one billion adult smokers worldwide), with sales shifting from developed markets to emerging markets like Asia and Africa.

Perhaps food and drinks brands can turn to new markets and innovate around the problem as well?

Speaking for myself, I am not pro-tobacco or pro-sugar, but I am happy to join those who value freedom of choice; to fight for our rights as consumers.

Lulu Laidlaw-Smith

Commercial Director