Public support for healthy food environment policies in Wales

In 2022, the Welsh government launched the healthy food environment (HFE) consultation. This was an important step towards implementing solutions to promote healthier foods and reduce childhood and adult obesity in Wales. Some of the solutions explored in the consultation included:

  • restricting temporary price reductions on unhealthy foods, so that retailers would only apply temporary discounts on healthy products
  • restricting multi-buy offers and volume promotions of unhealthy foods, so that retailers would only apply promotions such as buy one, get one free on healthy products
  • restricting the promotion of unhealthy foods through positioning strategies, so that only healthy products could be promoted in prominent store locations such as checkout displays
  • introducing calorie labels in the out-of-home sector, to inform customers about the calorie content of menu items in large restaurants
  • restricting larger portion sizes of sugary drinks in the out-of-home sector, to prevent restaurants from serving excessively large sugary drinks in single servings.

A previous unpublished Nesta study found that most of these policies had positive net support in Wales – with more people in favour of their implementation than opposed to them. However, support for these policies often rested on narrow margins, highlighting an opportunity to further increase their acceptability.

We hypothesised that some people might not support the aforementioned policies because their benefits are not always communicated sufficiently clearly. In fact, several past studies have shown that the way policies are described can affect how well-supported they are by the public.

Given the potential positive health impact of the policies in question, we wanted to understand how these policies could be described in a way that would help to convey their value and garner greater public support.

We conducted this research project to test if using more informative descriptions of the policies would increase the support for their implementation in Wales.

We asked over 3,000 Welsh adults to read a description of the aforementioned healthy-eating policies and to rate the extent to which they opposed or supported their implementation. For each policy, participants were randomly assigned to read either a standard description or one of three alternative descriptions, which aimed to better highlight the benefits of the policy or to better explain how the policy was intended to work.

For example, for the policy proposal to restrict temporary price reductions of unhealthy foods, some participants rated their support for the policy after reading a standard description: “This policy would require that retailers only run temporary price discounts (eg, 20% off the price of a product for one week) on healthy foods and not on unhealthy foods.”

Other participants rated their support for the same policy after reading one of three alternative descriptions:

  • Consumer rights and empowerment description: Standard description + “Temporary price discounts are often used as a marketing tactic to influence people to buy more unhealthy foods. Currently, supermarkets discount unhealthy foods more often than healthy foods, making it hard for people to make healthy choices. This policy would empower people to make independent decisions about their food choices without being influenced by negative industry tactics.”
  • Child health benefits description: Standard description + “Evidence shows that young people are particularly influenced by price discounts when selecting foods. Price discounts are more common for sugary foods like biscuits and cakes, making children (and their parents) more likely to buy them. Price discounts on unhealthy foods push children to eat more of them and contribute to children developing conditions such as obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”
  • Influencing industry actions description: Standard description + “This policy aims to encourage food brands to produce and promote healthier foods. Food producers would develop healthier products that are allowed to be discounted under the new rules and supermarkets would shift discounts to healthier items.”

Even when using standard descriptions, four out of the five healthy-eating policies included in our study enjoyed positive net support ( more people supported than opposed their implementation). In line with our previous research, these findings suggest that there is significant support for more action to promote healthy diets among the Welsh public.

The study highlighted the importance of policy descriptions on public perception. Compared to the standard description of the five policies, many descriptions which proactively highlighted the policy benefits or the way in which the policies were intended to work increased net support by 8 to 16 percentage points. In fact, all five policies received net support — and often very strong net support — when accompanied by a description that provided rationale for why they were being considered for implementation.

For example, the standard description of the policy proposal to restrict temporary price restrictions of unhealthy food yielded 18% net support. This percentage significantly increased among participants who read alternative descriptions of this same policy. Specifically:

  • Consumer rights description: Highlighting that the policy could empower people to make independent food choices without being influenced by industry tactics yielded 34% net support
  • Child health benefits description: Highlighting the benefits that this policy could have on children’s health yielded 33% net support
  • Influencing industry actions description: Highlighting that the policy could incentivise the food industry to produce healthier products yielded 32% net support

We tested many other descriptions to increase the support of the healthy-eating policies included in our study. Some approaches emerged as particularly promising at increasing public support across different policies, including highlighting the benefits that the policy could have on children’s health and highlighting how the policy could help to protect the rights of consumers.

These results highlight the importance of carefully considering how to communicate the benefits of new evidence-based policies. In this study we identified concrete descriptions and narratives that helped to increase the public support for a range of healthy-eating policies considered in Wales.

If you would like to know more about this research please get in touch with Jonathan Bone at [email protected].

Guest authors: Elena Meyer zu Brickwedde and Adam Jones, Research Advisors, the Behavioural Insights Team

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