Growing up, I remember how there were a bunch of “smoking isn’t cool” campaigns going on – the tv ads and cautionary teachers. The message was short, to the point, and relatively effective. And it was just one out of many public health initiatives that took place around the world. In 2007, for example, the United Kingdom enacted a ban on smoking in public spaces such as pubs and restaurants. Over the following decade, the number of smokers across the nation dropped significantly, resulting in 1.9 million fewer smokers (1). The combined success of this move and other shifts encouraged further proposals to reduce smoking. In 2017, the United Kingdom then mandated that all cigarette companies use plain packaging for their cigarette boxes. And now, they’ve turned their sights on sugar.
For the most part, the public recognizes and understands that consuming too much sugar is not good for you. Much like “smoking isn’t cool,” eating too much sugar isn’t a good decision. The UK already started taxing sugary drinks as of last year. Now, they are contemplating whether or not to mandate sugary sweets, snacks, and drinks be wrapped in plain packaging as well (2). If it seems to be working with smoking, maybe it will work with sugar?
This strong response starts to make more sense when you consider the numbers. Across all age groups in the UK, everyone consumes more than the recommended daily amount of free sugars; it should only be about 5% of their daily calories (2). The youth in the 10-19 age groups consume three times more sugar than the recommended amount. In addition, one-third of children that finish primary school are overweight or obese (3). They consume so much sugar and other components in unhealthy amounts that it is already taking a toll on their bodies. By introducing plain packaging, the UK legislature predict that they can reduce the sugar intake of children in this age range and more. Members of the food industry and Public Health England aim to cut 20% of sugar from the most common foods that children eat (3). Minimizing the influence of sugar would be a good public health initiative that would support more healthy living.
However, this is a tough decision to consider. By restricting companies to the use of plain packaging, this limits the boundaries of their creative freedom. The Food and Drink Federation, for example, believe that “branding is a fundamental commercial freedom and critical to competition” (2). And, it’s true. Using bright colors and brand mascots is an effective marketing tactic that draws in the attention of customers. It helps distinguish one brand from the next, and appeals to the wandering eyes of young consumers. Without this differentiation, it could cause an unwanted change in consumer behavior, in the eyes of the food companies.
It is hard to find the right balance between what needs to be done and what can realistically be achieved. Reducing the amount of sugar and other potentially negative components in products would be a great decision. But, more discussion needs to take place before plain packaging can become a reality in today’s food and drink industry.
What are your thoughts?
1. Cancer Research UK. "British Smokers Down By 1. 9 Million Since Smoking Ban." ScienceDaily, 1 July 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170701081722.htm>.
2. Triggle, Nick. “Is It Time To Treat Sugar Like Smoking?” BBC News, 4 June 2019. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-48499195
3. “Children in England Consuming ‘Twice As Much Sugar As Recommended’.” BBC News, 15 June 2018. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-44483081
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