A bitter taste?

Think tank: Social Market Foundation

Author(s): Aveek Bhattacharya; Khazna Chami

August 28, 2023

This report from UK think tank the Social Market Foundation explores the political constraints on public health policies.

This is the second of three SMF papers exploring tobacco, alcohol, obesity and gambling policy. It explores the political opportunities and constraints around action on these issues, based on a review of polling evidence and interviews with policymakers involved in implementing major public health policies. The briefing finds that public opinion does not appear to be the main obstacle to interventionist public health policies. More people were in favour of than opposed to the vast majority of policies polled, and advertising restrictions and policies to benefit children are particularly popular. Taxes, especially new taxes, tend to be relatively unpopular – but public health taxes are seen more favourably than other forms of tax. Expert interviews suggest resistance from the media, industry and party colleagues is a bigger barrier than voter opposition. That means politicians seeking to take action on public health need to be prepared for a long-term project requiring political capital and stamina. There are at least two strategic approaches they might take: building ‘scoreboard momentum’ by carefully picking battles, proposing measures that are likely to pass and consolidating; or taking ‘two steps forward, one step back’, by recognising that almost anything proposed will meet resistance, taking a maximalist approach and fighting on multiple fronts, but expecting to lose some.