The issue of whether businesses are solely driven by profits and will not respond to voluntary guidance to improve the health effects of their products is a matter of hot debate in the British Medical Journal this week.
Self-regulation is a buzz-word for a food industry that is keen to position itself as contributing to better health of consumers – and to avoid heavy-handed regulations being imposed by governments.
Trade associations such as the Food and Drink Federation in the UK publicise work in partnership with regulators such as the Food Standards Authority, engaging in debate and with Melanie Leech and Dame Deidre Hutton, head honchos at the respective organisations, sometimes sharing speaking platforms.
However in a debate played out in the pages of the BMJ, Stephen Sugarman, a professor of Law from Berkeley University in California, USA, says voluntary approach will not work as food firms are too motivated by profit to act in the best health interests of consumers.
He compares their profit driven interests at the expense of consumer health to those of the tobacco industry.
On the other hand, performance-based regulation, imposed by governments but with societies in mind, would focus directly on outcomes, Sugarman suggests. For example, he says manufacturers of unhealthy products would have to make sure there are fewer obese schoolchildren – just as tobacco companies would be required to reduce the numbers of smokers.
“Let society set legally enforceable goals and then let enterprises loose to accomplish then,” he wrote.
The powers of persuasion
Stig Pramming, executive director of the Oxford Health Alliance in the UK, stressed the need for regulators, industry and activists to work together.
“Cooperation is an urgent priority, and we must act to ensure that business is part of the solution,” he said. “Regulation is no substitute for collaboration.”
Pramming argues that regulation to enforce the selling of healthier snack food will not necessarily lead to a fall in obesity levels.
Indeed, food is seen as just one element in addressing the obesity crisis. In the UK, for instance, a major £372m programme to combat obesity was launched, seeking to address these measures as well as partnering with the food industry to develop and market healthier food.
According to Pramming, businesses have changed. They cannot afford to ignore social responsibility.
And while they will still consider profits first, activists can play a part in encouraging them to get involved with health-oriented project, and reformulate foods along healthier lines.
He says that many companies are able to combine healthy foods with profits, recognising the business sense in promoting healthy choices and behaviours.
Doi: 10.1136/bmj.a1761Should we use regulation to demand improved public health outcomes from industry? NoAuthor: Stig Pramming
Should we use regulation to demand improved public health outcomes from industry? YesAuthor: Stephen D Sugarman