Department of Health defends anti-obesity efforts

The Department of Health's director of comms has launched a staunch defence of the Government's anti-obesity drive, after criticism over its ties to the snack foods industry.

Tasty: Freuds receives £1m a year to handle the DH brief
Tasty: Freuds receives £1m a year to handle the DH brief

The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges has attacked the Government’s obesity PR as ‘fundamentally flawed’ for prioritising major food firms over medical practitioners.

Professor Terence Stephenson, who is heading an alternative anti-obesity campaign, told PRWeek:

‘Doctors feel the Government’s current strategy of using the food industry to try to promote healthy eating is fundamentally flawed.’

Responding to Stephenson’s comments, the DH’s top comms man Sam Lister told PRWeek: ‘It is absolutely vital to have links with the food industry and not to be at loggerheads with it.’

Lister welcomed the attempt by the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges to tackle obesity and agreed that the public would ‘most likely’ trust the words of doctors over ministers when it came to living healthier lifestyles. And when asked whether the department would link up with doctors for any future campaigns, he answered: 'It's an overriding mission to have doctors involved in all our campaigns'.

The Government’s flagship health campaigns include Change4Life, which, as part of a wider brief covering smoking and campaigns around older people and younger people, pays £1m a year to Freud Communications. Freuds has brokered deals for the DH with PepsiCo and Mars, which are also clients of the agency.

The Government is also overseeing the Responsibility Deal, which signs up fast-food brands to help promote calorie reduction.

In defence of the food firm partnerships, Lister said: ‘The Responsibility Deal focuses on helping people live healthier lives and by working with food firms we have achieved results far faster than would happen through legislation.’

Asda, Coca-Cola Great Britain, Mars and Subway have all signed up to the Responsibility Deal. As a result, Coca-Cola will reduce the calories in some of its soft drinks by at least 30 per cent by 2014 and Mars will cap the number of calories in its chocolate to 250 per bar by the end of 2013.

Lister agreed with comments from Stephenson that the Government had failed to stand toe-to-toe with the marketing budgets of food firms, but argued the £50m being spent on public health campaigns this year was a ‘significant commitment’.


How I see it

Simon Francis, freelance comms consultant

The Change4Life campaign is absolutely right to be engaging the food industry and retailers in its activity. Regardless of whether medical experts like it or not, the public loves and trusts many of the brands the DH has engaged with.

Sarah Wrixon, director, Salix Consulting

Doctors are a regular touchstone for many people and are therefore well positioned to advise, but then again so is the food industry; and some engagement with the food industry must be better than none. However,  Professor Stephenson is right to challenge the integrity of this engagement.


In numbers

£7bn Cost per year to the NHS of obesity and alcohol-related conditions

60% Proportion of adults who are overweight or obese

£14m The DH’s marketing budget for the Change4Life 2011/12 programme

40% Proportion of adults who do recommended physical activity



Professor hits out at ‘confusing’ campaign messages

The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges’ Professor Terence Stephenson has criticised major Government PR campaigns for their links to the fast-food industry and confused messaging.

The body, which has pledged to launch its own anti-obesity campaign, argued that the Government’s PR efforts should make better use of the medical profession because ‘public trust is still with doctors’ – a direct contrast with declining levels of public trust in politicians.

Stephenson also criticised the way the Government’s healthy eating campaigns are communicated, saying the public is being ‘bombarded’ with too much information that is ‘too complex’ for the majority of people.

He added that the Government made the wrong decision when it dismissed the traffic light system of food packaging after lobbying from the food industry.

Meanwhile, one agency PRO suggested there was a question over whether, faced with an escalating obesity epidemic, the Government needed to take legislative action rather than wait for results to emerge from ‘softer’ measures, such as Change4Life.

Other healthcare-focused PROs have been more supportive (see above).

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