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Clean slate - will plain packaging pressure on food retailers increase?

Just a decade ago the concept of forcing 'plain' packaging on the tobacco industry would have seemed like a pipe dream. But concerns about the proven health implications of smoking saw the measure introduced in the UK in 2016 and the plain packs – actually lurid boxes with images of smoking-related diseases – have helped cut smoking rates substantially.

Health professionals are now questioning whether the same strategy could help to address other common but avoidable health problems. Obesity, and related conditions such as diabetes, are afflicting increasing numbers. Many would now like the most damaging food products to be treated like tobacco and forced into plain packaging – though crucially the 'worst' products are only loosely defined.

The suggestion has received a predictably lukewarm response from those in the food production, retail and marketing industries. This month a court room style event – called 'Food Policy on Trial' – sought to analyse how these sectors should respond to the growing health problems in the country.

A 'jury' consisting of members of the Food Ethics Council heard evidence from a number of expert witnesses. These included Alex Haigh, technical director of Brand Finance, which published its latest report at the event.

Called Plain Packaging 2019 the report seeks to calculate the cost of plain packaging rules to companies in markets such as soft drinks, alcohol and confectionery. Taking eight major brand owning groups as an example – AB InBev, The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, Heineken, Mondelez International, Nestle, PepsiCo, and Pernod Ricard – Brand Finance calculates they would face potential losses of US$234bn.

The figure “... represents a 37.1 per cent drop in the value of brand contribution and a 19.5 percent fall in total enterprise value across these eight companies”, says the report. It points out that the figure is equivalent to the GDP of countries such as New Zealand or Greece.

“Plain packaging essentially involves banning, or at least restricting, freedom of choice for customers. In our view this harms consumers as well as restricting commercial freedom and competitive improvements in quality,” said Haigh. He described how brands protect consumers from poor quality and counterfeit products, help them avoid time wastage while shopping, and how brands invest in research and development of better products.

Brands are assets, and taking them away from companies would be like seizing property, Haigh argued. “Any confiscation of that property would require compensation,” he told the jury. He also warned of homogenisation and monopolisation of markets, as companies with the best distribution networks grew market share as competition was stifled.

Second witness Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer at advertising agency AMV BBDO, was involved in the campaign that led to the the adoption of plain packaging for tobacco. He is a supporter of legislation around advertising, reasoning that messages that are more trusted are more effective. “I think the question is where do you draw the line,” he told the court.

Tactic, not strategy

Mawdsley also pointed out that the changes to tobacco packaging were part of a far wider public health campaign, that saw increased taxes, restrictions on in-store display, increased 'help to quit' advice, and other spending to reduce smoking. “Plain packaging on its own was not an effective way to reduce smoking,” he said. “It's not a strategy, it's a tactic.”

He also highlighted that tobacco is a unique product category, in that “When used exactly as the manufacturers intend will hugely increase your risks of life affecting disease and will reduce your life expectancy. There is no safe amount of tobacco to consume.” The picture for products that are high in sugar, salt, fat, or alcohol is more complicated, he said.

Misleading packaging

Dietician Dr Helen Crawley made the point that much current packaging is simply misleading, and that consumers are not always aware of the contents of food they eat. She brought examples of foods intended for babies, highlighting messages on the packaging that she considered misleading.

Many of the nutritional claims on packs are meaningless, and undermine the benefits of real food, said Dr Crawley. These included claims that products include 'Baby grade ingredients' – a phrase with no meaning in law – and that they are free of various substances that would never have been present in any case.

She distributed packets of Kiddylicious Smoothie Melts for the audience and jury to sample. The product is marketed as a snack food that contains '1 of 5 a day' portions of fruit and vegetables, with a packaging claim that it is 'packed with real fruit'. The packaging also features a cartoon character to appeal to children. “This is a 70 per cent sugar product. It's confectionery. In what crazy world is that one of your five a day?” Dr Crawley asked the jury. She argued for root and branch reform of packaging rules.

The final expert witness was Ben Pugh, founder and CEO of online grocery retailer Farmdrop. He maintained that consumers need more protection from unscrupulous food manufacturers and retailers. He too thinks that current advertising rules and guidelines are unfit for purpose, and are biased towards large scale brands.

In addition, Pugh thinks that the entire strategy applied to reduce smoking should be applied to food, “Starting with the worst offenders. This means not just introducing plain packaging, but also banning advertising, and thirdly taxing the worst impact foods to capture their future healthcare costs and their environmental impact. In other words, a bottle of Coke should probably cost more than ten quid.”

Pugh says an independent group of nutritional and environmental experts should be appointed by the government to establish an initial blacklist of products.

In the following debate session it emerged that members of the jury and the expert witnesses had inconsistent views of the definition of plain packaging, and the objectives of using it. There was no clear view of which products would be classified as 'worst' and no mention of safeguards to prevent proposed plain packaging rules from creeping into further product categories.

A poll of the audience – which consisted of a range of industry experts – showed they felt that plain packaging, on its own, would be a flawed solution to the health challenges around food, but that as part of a wider strategy it might show promise.

The jury retired after a question and answer session, with the jurors still considering their verdict.

Expert witnesses:

Alex Haigh, technical director of Brand Finance

Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer of advertising agency AMV BBDO

Ben Pugh, founder and CEO of Farmdrop

Dr Helen Crawley, a dietician and pubic health nutritionist

The jury:

Prof Elizabeth Dowler, nutritionist and expert on household food insecurity

Jo Lewis, policy and strategy director of the Soil Association

Jon Alexander, co-founder of the New Citizenship Project

Julian Baggini, philosopher and writer