It is an interesting product of devolution that the governments of Scotland and Wales are now leading the way in some areas of public policy and, in the health service, the guidance on hospital vending machines is one such example.
Today World Cancer Research Fund, backed by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, is calling for England to catch up with its neighbours to the west and north by introducing health guidelines for the kind of food and drink provided in the vending machines that line hospital corridors. It is time for the NHS in England to establish itself as a beacon of good health practice.
While the Scottish and Welsh governments have been implementing guidelines on the content of hospital vending machines (as well as other food and drink in hospitals) since 2008, Westminster has continued to allow English hospital trusts to set their own agenda at the local level. While local decision-making may be more flexible and, on the face of it, more democratic, it has resulted in a situation where three out of four hospitals have no policy in place relating to the food and drink provided by their vending machines, as revealed by our poll of 146 English hospital trusts.
As our general manager Amanda McLean points out, this has often led to machines filled with high-calorie or high-salt food and drink and very few healthy options. Aside from the link between these kind of products and diseases such as cancer, type-2 diabetes and heart disease, this is a missed opportunity for the government to set up the health service as an example of good practice.
Writing in the British Medical Journal cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra said: “An oversupply of nutritionally poor and energy dense foods loaded with sugar, salt and trans fats, fuelled by aggressive and irresponsible marketing by the junk food industry has even been allowed to hijack the very institutions that at are supposed to set an example and promote positive health messages; our hospitals.”
WCRF UK believes that vending machines should at least offer a healthy option for every type of product they supply, for example healthier baked crisps alongside fried crisps. This would underline the importance the government puts on following a healthy diet as a way to help reduce the number of cases of cancer, heart disease and other conditions that keep our hospitals crowded and cost the health service billions of pounds every year.