National Food Strategy #15: Drug foods and their specific risks to the food supply system

The profits and prevalence of drug-food companies present specific and damaging risks to the UK food supply chain.

What a drug food is
The term ‘drug-foods’ was first coined by the anthropologist, Sidney Mintz, for the tropical commodities first brought to Europe by early explorers, namely (cane) sugar, chocolate, caffeine (tea and coffee), rum and tobacco (still classed on the Forbes List as a ‘food’). Our definition subsumes products containing sugar-substitute sweeteners* and those, such as crips, specifically formulated to be ‘moreish’; i.e. to stimulate pleasure responses beyond the natural pleasure of eating, as well as other alcohol products.

*We include sweeteners because of evidence of their harmful impact; e.g. this article by Cabral et al (2018); also our report (2015) Coca Cola and its effects on us and the city

The over-consumption of these products on planetary and human health
The health consequences of over-consumption of these drug foods are obvious to us all and they come at a huge financial and social costs, mostly locally borne and which include the disposal of drug-food packaging (or recycling, though much of it currently can’t be). It’s less widely recognised that the production of drug foods uses up our increasingly stretched natural resources, resources that could be used to produce nutritious food.

Two examples: 6% of the UK potato crop went to make only Walkers crisps last year. It’s been calculated that in 2012, Coca Cola’s global water consumption was enough to meet the annual needs of over 2bn people.

The price and prevalence of drug-food calories
In some of our poorer wards in Birmingham, as in all other cities, the only nearby availability of the calories necessary to sustain life are drug-foods such as confectionery, sweet biscuits, crisps & other savoury snacks, and drinks ranging from fizzy pop to alcohol. Such products are cheap and more-ish. Moreover, for the retailer, unlike fresh produce sales, these products have a long shelf life and are profitable.

A senior supermarket executive wryly summed up the situation to us: We have to sell these products; confectionery subsidises carrots.

VAT: a precise mechanism to identify drug-food companies
The Chief Medical Officer in her 2018 Annual Report, stated Those who shape the environment for health should be held to account [. . . ] Those sectors that damage our health must pay for their harm or subsidise healthier choices.

She was not clear, however, about the identity of the companies that shape the environment nor those sectors that damage our health.

Through the UK Value Added Tax (VAT) system, it is possible to be precise about drug-food corporate vested interests within the food sector.

This tax precisely and systematically identifies both drug-food products and the major manufacturers producing and promoting them. This allows us, should we wish to do so, to put in place regulation, prohibitions and fiscal measures to curb their activities, as we already have against tobacco companies.

See also our blogpost: How the VAT system identifies vested interests costing us and the earth.

The economic challenges in curbing the activities of drug-food companies . . . and in not doing so
Over 50% of the UK household food spend is on drug-foods. There is likely to be an even higher proportion of drug-food spend on catering services (about which there is no publicly available data).

These products are no longer expensive luxuries, occasional treats, but a cheap, easily accessible means to acquire calories whilst also satisfying a more-ish, addictive pleasure.

The influence of drug-food companies at a global level is indisputable. They also wield great influence and economic power at a local and hyperlocal level, with particular and pernicious impact in our more deprived communities.

Moreover, as with smoking, the costs of over-consumption on human and planetary health are not immediately felt, whereas the profits of business and associated livelihoods are seen at the point of sale. Political decision-making, dependent as it is on election time-scales, has  discounted longer-term costs over the last few decades.

See also our blogpost: What does this food sector balance sheet tell us?

Big questions without many answers
Placing curbs on drug-food companies begs big questions without many answers to date: How would we support SMEs that make a substantial part of their living from drug-food sales to make a transition to a different business model? Or hospitals, leisure centres et al whose income stream is significantly enhanced by the sale of drug-foods? How could planning decisions figure in their economic needs? 

Indeed, what mechanisms can national and local government put in place to generate commercially viable profits for healthy agri-food-enterprises?

In summary, countering the power and vested interests of corporations manufacturing and promoting drug-foods is a huge social, political and economic challenge, a challenge that has to be tackled, and tackled far more quickly than the actions against tobacco companies that we now take for granted.


The next blogpost in this series is #16: A UK Food Security Institute


Previous blogposts in this National Food Strategy series are:

#14: Risk categorisation

#13: A local level strategy?

#12: Local risk and resilience

#11: City level responses to food insecurity

#10: The space between farm gate and food outlet

#9: Three scenarios and their risks to the supply chain

#8: Supply chain permutations are endless

#7: A simplified fresh produce supply chain map

#6: UK resilience to global risks to food supplies

#5: Global risks to UK food supplies

#4: The irreconcilables

#3:  The global competition for safe, nutritious food

#2: Responsibility, resilience and ethics

#1: The brief

A link to our submission is here.    A list of all the blogposts in this series is here.


  One thought on “National Food Strategy #15: Drug foods and their specific risks to the food supply system

  1. We welcome Dame Sally Davies’ mention of standard-rate VAT on some food products in here last report before leaving post as Chief Medical Officer.

    We do not think, however, that increasing the food products which carry standard-rate VAT would make the difference we need. Indeed, we assess many an argument about what comprises a healthy food product — and, we suspect would be welcomed by many corporations making and promoting many food products deemed ‘unhealthy’. Our

    Our judgement is that it’s better by far to leave VAT in its current form because it precisely identifies both drug-foods and the corporations that make or promote them, thereby providing opportunities to regulate against some of their activities, as we do tobacco and alcohol companies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *