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How to tackle obesity: the public's view

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Diana Bardsley, Researcher
Tags: SSA, Scottish Government, Scottish Health Survey, Scottish Social Attitudes, diet, obesity

The most recent Scottish Health Survey shows that 65% of adults in Scotland are overweight, including 29% who are obese - figures which have remained largely unchanged since 2008. Recognising this, the Scottish Government has published a consultation on a new approach which aims to make tackling obesity as important as tackling other public health issues, such as smoking and alcohol.

In ‘Improving Scotland’s Health: A Healthier Future’, the Scottish Government presents a variety of interventions that aim to not only enable the population to make healthier choices, but get retailers and manufacturers to facilitate them. The consultation focuses mostly on interventions aimed at improving Scotland’s diet - giving physical activity the backseat. 

So, how do the Scottish public feel about the Government’s proposed methods on tackling obesity? Using data from ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) 2016, we can gauge support for some of the proposed interventions.

Firstly, SSA shows that people are not in support of the Scottish Government’s focus on diet over physical activity. 85% of people feel that both a healthy diet and physical activity are ‘equally important’ in trying to lose weight.

Only 12% think that eating a healthier diet is more important for losing weight, and just 3% that prioritising exercise is key in shifting the extra pounds. 

However, 82% of people in Scotland are in favour of placing limits on fat/sugar/salt added to foods/drinks by manufacturers…

… and 58% of people say manufacturers are responsible for reducing the number of people in Scotland who are very overweight. This demonstrates potential for widespread public support of the Government’s proposed strategy to involve the food and drink industry in reducing the country’s waistline.

However, the findings also show that there are lower levels of support for other types of policy changes proposed in the consultation.

65% of people in Scotland are in favour of a ban on children’s cartoon characters and sports people on packaging…

… which suggests that there would be public support for the consultation’s proposal to extend the current restrictions on advertising food and drink to all programmes before the 9pm watershed. People in Scotland are more supportive of restrictions on advertising directed specifically at children than of a general ban of adverts for sugary drinks (56% in favour) or unhealthy food (53% in favour).

62% of people in Scotland are in favour of a tax on sugary, fizzy drinks…

… indicating that people are supportive of the government’s decision to implement a soft drinks tax levy. The majority of people also show support for putting a tax on other drinks high in sugar (55% in favour). This suggests people in Scotland may well be behind the consultation proposition to extend the scope of the UK government soft drinks levy to include sugary milk-based drinks containing less than 95% milk. The majority of people are even in favour of a tax on sugary foods (53% in favour) - but when asked whether or not they are in favour of a tax on foods high in fat, only 47% agree. The reason for this difference in support is not clear, however, it may be that recent media attention on the tax on fizzy drinks has raised awareness of the high sugar content in these drinks. But it may also be that drinks are seen as non-essential compared with food.

52% of people in Scotland are in favour of banning price offers, such as 2 for 1, on unhealthy foods.

The Scottish Government is also proposing to restrict price promotions on food and drink products high in fat, salt and sugar - and this evidence shows around half of people in Scotland would be supportive of this policy, however, this is lower than the support for the soft drinks tax levy. 

So how do these views differ by income?

Unsurprisingly, people in the lowest income group are significantly less supportive of potential policy measures aimed at combatting obesity by increasing the price of, or banning price offers on, unhealthy food. The only policy which has majority support from those in the lowest income group is taxing sugary, fizzy drinks (55%) and the least support is shown for putting a tax on high fat food (40%).

These findings show that the majority of people in Scotland are generally supportive of a range of potential policy changes to reduce obesity. However, for nearly all the potential policy interventions SSA investigated, less than two-thirds of people are in favour of them being introduced, leaving a significant minority of people in Scotland against the introduction of these measures. And among specific groups, such as people on low incomes, support in some areas drops to only 4 in 10 where the outcome could lead to an increase in the price of certain types of food. The government must be mindful of divided opinions if policy changes are to be effective, with certain groups exhibiting greater concern over the financial implications of increasing the cost of some foods.

Read the report.

Find out more about the Scottish Social Attitudes survey.

Follow ScotCen on Twitter: @ScotCen

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