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Can the private sector help the 'nanny state' play a crucial role in selling better eating to the public and reduce health care costs? – University of Reading

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Can the private sector help the 'nanny state' play a crucial role in selling better eating to the public and reduce health care costs?

Release Date 28 May 2009

Across the European Union, member state policy interventions aimed at improving diet and reducing related preventative diseases have, in the past, had mixed results.

A new, three and a half year, €2.5 million European research project, EATWELL, led by the University of Reading, will, for the first time, catalogue these interventions, evaluating what has worked well and why. It will investigate how the public sector can effectively market promising dietary interventions to the population, and what attitudinal barriers may be faced in implementation in the range of countries. The conclusions will be presented as recommendations to member states and the European Commission.

Dr Bhavani Shankar, Senior Lecturer in Applied Economics in the University of Reading's School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, said: "It is easy to be dismissive of state interference in determining dietary choice. Indeed, the nanny state specifying what one should eat can conjure up Orwellian visions. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a clear rationale for further government involvement in food choice. Obesity, driven partly by food choice, now accounts for between 5 and 7% of total health care costs in the EU. In addition to its contribution via obesity, poor dietary quality directly contributes to a range of preventable diseases that raise health care costs."

Obesity has been estimated to cost the EU some €70 billion annually through health care costs and lost productivity. Over consumption of salt, sugar and saturated fats and under-consumption of fruit and vegetables cause almost 70,000 premature deaths annually in the UK alone.

Professor Bruce Traill, Professor of Food Economics at the University of Reading, said: "In the case of the UK, for example, people making poor dietary choices makes the NHS more expensive for everybody. So, quite apart from trying to save lives by encouraging healthier eating, some government intervention in this arena is in the social interest.

"Our research will examine the range of policy interventions that have been carried out in EU countries and elsewhere in the past. We are particularly interested to examine how the private sector's marketing expertise could be effectively adopted by public sector healthy eating campaigns."

Policy interventions to encourage healthy eating in European member states have included prohibitions on advertising certain foods to children, promotion of fruit and vegetable consumption, nutrition labelling, dialogue with the food industry to improve food product composition, regulation of school meals and public sector canteens to ensure healthy food offerings. To date, these have not been systematically evaluated.

The EATWELL project will gather benchmark data on healthy eating interventions and review existing data and evaluations of the effectiveness of interventions using a three stage procedure: the impact of the intervention on consumer attitudes, consumer behaviour and diets; the impact of the change in diets on obesity and health; the value attached by society to these changes, measured in life years gained, cost savings and Quality Adjusted Life Years - a measure of gains from health-related interventions that adjusts for changes in quality of life.

Through surveys and workshops, EATWELL will assess the acceptability to stakeholders of the range of potential interventions and recommend the most appropriate interventions for Member States and the EU.

ENDS

Further information from the University of Reading Press Office on 0118 378 7115 or media@reading.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

Interventions to Promote Healthy Eating Habits: Evaluation and Recommendations (EATWELL) is funded by the European Union. The total project cost is €2.5 million, of which the University of Reading (project coordinator) receives €659,000.

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