29.Public Health England’s evidence review presents new research showing the strong impact price promotions have on people’s purchasing habits. They conclude that “higher sugar products are promoted heavily in British supermarkets at elevated levels compared to other foods” and that price promotions have reached record levels, with some 40% of expenditure on food and drinks consumed at home being spent on products on promotion. These are the highest levels in Europe, double that of Germany, France and Spain. Dr Alison Tedstone, Public Health England’s Director of Diet and Obesity, described the impact of price promotions:
Our analysis shows that promotions do not just lead you to swapping one brand of biscuit for another brand of biscuit; they lead to an expansion of the category. Over time, promotions lead to a 20% expansion of the category, which means that overall they lead to us buying more food. You could argue that that is about value to the customer, but our analysis supports the notion that it is actually leading to people buying things that they would not otherwise intend to buy.
30.Public Health England’s report gives further detail:
Promotions make products cheaper and lead to changes in normal shopping patterns (eg buying a different brand because it costs less). They also encourage consumers to buy and spend more on a particular type of product than normal. This increases the total amount of household food and drink purchased by around one-fifth (22%) and are purchases that people would not make if the price promotions did not exist. Promotions do not, as is often reported by food and drink companies, just encourage shoppers to switch from one brand to another. The effects of promotions can also be seen across all demographic and socioeconomic groups.
For example, a shopper might normally buy one pack of biscuits a week. When confronted with a ‘buy 2 for £2’ deal they buy two packs instead of one (double their normal quantity). While this extra pack of biscuits might be expected to last two weeks (if still consuming one pack per week), the shopper actually buys a third packet of biscuits during the second week. Therefore, not only have they consumed more within the space of that two weeks, the amount they have spent has also increased (having purchased three packets overall, which ultimately costs more than the usual pattern despite the promotional offer).
31.Dr Tedstone noted that “that 20% figure, the uplift in the category which is happening because of promotions, is responsible for an addition of about 6% to sugar coming out of retail. That is quite a lot.”
32.Price promotions include the following:
33.Public Health England’s analysis specifically considered the effect of promotions on sugar purchases. It shows that higher sugar food and drinks (particularly discretionary products such as carbonated drinks, biscuits, cakes etc) are more likely to be promoted and have greater relative price reductions than those applied to table sugar and products where sugar is naturally present (ie milk, fruit and vegetables).
34.Public Health England also concluded that the increased volume purchased is unlikely to be offset by reductions in purchases of similar products (eg buying more biscuits does not necessarily lead to a reduction in the amount of cakes purchased), leading to overall gains in the total amount of sugar brought in to the home. It is estimated that 8.7% of the sugar brought into the home is a direct result of the extra food and drink bought on promotion.
35.Public Health England’s recommendation is clear:
Reduce and rebalance the number and type of price promotions in all retail outlets including supermarkets and convenience stores and the out of home sector (including restaurants, cafes and takeaways).
36.PHE argues that “around 6% of total sugar purchased comes from higher sugar foods and drinks specifically and could potentially be prevented if promotions on higher sugar products did not occur.”
37.The previous Government’s Responsibility Deal was the mechanism through which Government engaged with industry in an attempt to bring about voluntary pledges to improve public health. Professor Susan Jebb, who was Chair of the Food Network of the Responsibility Deal, told us that price promotions are an area where voluntary agreements have been explored, but will not work, as price promotions cut to the heart of business competitiveness. Measures in this area will therefore need to be introduced on a mandatory basis to ensure a level playing field for businesses.
38.Although it is easy to identify promotion of food and drink as a vital area to address, it is more difficult to pin down in detail exactly what controls on promotions should be introduced and how, as Professor Jebb and Dr Alison Tedstone showed us:
Susan Jebb: […] The question for me is not whether promotions make a difference; of course they do. The challenge is how we take action. It is dead easy to say that we need to rebalance promotions, but do we mean we need to increase the healthy and decrease the unhealthy, or do we genuinely mean we should shift the balance? That might actually raise the whole level of promotions. Secondly, if you were trying to write some legislation what would you write? Through the Responsibility Deal discussions, I have to say that I was really struggling to think what it was, in a very precise, targeted way, that one would need to do, which would not lead to compensatory actions by manufacturers elsewhere. If we again take a too narrow, scalpel-like approach to this, there is so much variability in the promotional spend by companies that we might just squeeze the spending somewhere else and not affect things overall. I do not know how much evidence we have, or whether PHE have been able to work out where those pinch points are.
Alison Tedstone: In PHE, there is very little evidence on ways to control promotion, as Susan says …. We need to reduce overall numbers if you want to see an impact; you cannot just uplift the healthy side of it. We already have a tool for limiting the advertising of foods to children … something like that would possibly be a basis for thinking about promotions.
39.Designing adequate controls on promotions of foods and drinks, in a way that reduces overall levels and takes account of possible unintended consequences, will be a key task for Government. It will be important to make sure that there is a level playing field across retail outlets on reducing price promotions.
40.Price promotions on foods in the UK have reached record levels—some 40% of the food UK consumers buy is now on promotion, double that of other European countries. Public Health England has presented clear evidence that price promotions lead to customers buying more of particular types of products, rather than simply switching brands, and that promotions are skewed in favour of higher sugar foods and drinks. While promotions may be presented as offering value for money for consumers, they actually lead to consumers spending more money, rather than less.
41.We endorse Public Health England’s recommendation that measures should be taken to reduce and rebalance the number and type of promotions in all retail outlets, including restaurants, cafes and takeaways. In our view this should not be limited to products which are high in sugar, but also those high in salt and fat. Voluntary controls are unlikely to work in this area and the Government should introduce mandatory controls. Measures should be designed to reduce the overall number of promotions of unhealthy foods and drinks. They should be as comprehensive as possible, and should be carefully designed to take account of possible unintended consequences, including the introduction of compensatory promotional activity of other unhealthy foods and drinks.
42.We heard that good progress has been made on removing unhealthy foods from checkouts, although the British Retail Consortium questioned the impact that this would have on obesity. However, in their evidence review, Public Health England present evidence that “end of aisle displays can significantly increase purchases of soft drinks”. They also state that “more than a third (37%) of confectionery impulse purchases are prompted solely by seeing the product”. Alison Tedstone also gave examples of new types of promotion now taking place within different parts of the retail environment:
There are new things happening in promotions in store. One of the biggest shifts that we are seeing is high sugar foods being promoted through non-traditional retail routes. You never used to be able to buy bags of sweeties in dress shops. Now they are heavily marketed along the checkouts of dress shops. They are heavily marketed in some of our newsagents, and we know from behaviour change research that it is very difficult to resist that “Would you like a kilo of chocolate with your newspaper, Madam?” type of thing. It requires our will not to buy that very cheap bar of chocolate.
43.Public Health England recommends “taking other broader actions such as removing confectionery or other less healthy foods from end of aisles and till points, including in non-food retail settings (eg clothes shops)”.
44.Research suggests that the placement of foods in store may have a substantial impact on purchasing of unhealthy foods. We commend the progress which has been made in removing unhealthy food from checkouts in supermarkets, but new ways of promoting unhealthy foods in store are emerging, including high sugar foods being heavily marketed at the checkouts of clothing retailers and newsagents. We endorse Public Health England’s case for removing confectionery or other less healthy foods from the ends of aisles and checkouts. We recommend an outright ban on these practices and call on retailers to end the promotion of high calorie discounted products as impulse buys at the point of non-food sales.
40 Q36, Q80
45 Public Health England, , October 2015, p25
Prepared 27 November 2015