Food firms to help fund anti-obesity campaigns

Firms such as Mars, Cadbury and Coca-Cola will take on a bigger role in funding campaigns aimed at tackling soaring obesity rates, it was announced today.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said he wanted to free food and drink firms from the "burden of regulation" and would invite them to take on a greater role in public health.

Commercial companies selling foods such as chocolate, crisps and soft drinks did not want the public to see their products as "harmful" but as something that could be incorporated into healthy diets, he said.

Talking about good food or bad food just closes companies out, he said, adding that people needed to take more responsibility for their own health.

It is "perfectly possible to eat a bag of crisps, to eat a Mars bar, to drink a carbonated soft drink" as long as it is in moderation, he said.

The Change4Life campaign was launched in January 2009 with £75 million of government funding over three years.

Cadbury, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Kellogg's, Kraft, Mars, Nestle and PepsiCo have all been involved, alongside Britvic and major supermarket Tesco.

Mr Lansley told public health workers the Government would be "progressively scaling back the proportion of taxpayers' money spent on Change4Life."

Private firms, local authorities and charities would be invited to fill the gap instead, he told the Faculty of Public Health conference in central London.

Speaking afterwards, he said Change4Life would be expanding, to cover areas such as alcohol.

"The integrity of Change4Life as a brand - it's identity and what it means - we are going to ensure that is sustained," he said.

"I'm also intending that Change4Life should not be seen in as narrow confines as it has in the past.

"It's tended to be focused on obesity, physical activity and young people.

"I think the brand is strong enough to bear people's interpretation that it's actually about helping them to have a healthy lifestyle so, for example, it can embrace issues of people's relationship with alcohol much as it does people's relationship with food and physical activity."

He went on: "Frankly, some people in the commercial sector have been saying to me before the election: 'We want to be able to participate in Change4Life and bring our campaigns into the Change4Life family of campaigns'.

"We should, but I don't think they can do that on the basis that government bears all the cost and responsibility for Change4Life and the brand and public awareness of it."

On reformulating foods and front-of-pack labelling, he said even if he did have a view on legislation it was not in his "gift" to legislate, partly because of European rules.

"If we are going to make real progress, we're going to make a lot of progress and we're going to do it fast, we are going to do it on a voluntary basis," he said.

"I don't want to do it on prescriptive basis, we've had too much burdensome regulation.

"We want to free business from the burden of regulation but we don't want, in doing that, to sacrifice public health outcomes."

Mr Lansley said if people cared to listen to business people and companies they would see they "understand the social responsibility of people having a better lifestyle and they don't regard that as remotely inconsistent with their long-term commercial interest.

"Actually they see it as in their commercial interest to help people do that because they want people to see their products not as harmful but as something they can incorporate.

"That is why, from my point of view, it's not about good food or bad food because that way, you just close companies out.

"It's actually about a good diet or bad diet, good exercise or lack of exercise, it's about people having a responsibility."

He said some companies had felt "stigmatised" as selling junk food.

"We are more likely to have an impact on the people we most want to impact on if, when they are contemplating buying carbonated drinks, buying sweets or buying crisps, they don't feel that they've somehow gone outside the framework of responsibility for their health, that it's perfectly possible to eat a bag of crisps, to eat a Mars bar, to drink a carbonated soft drink but do it in moderation, understanding your overall diet and lifestyle, understanding what your energy balance is between calories in and calories out.

"Then you can begin to take responsibility for it and the companies selling these things to you, they can be part of that responsibility too."