Protecting the Vulnerable Consumer: The Moral Obligations of Manufacturers towards Public Health

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

We've all been warned about the effects of too much salt on our health for a while now but only this week it has been brought to our attention that some manufacturers are listing sodium levels on product information instead of salt levels. Consumers have mistakenly been interpreting these sodium levels as salt levels, not realising that the salt levels are two and a half times higher than the listed sodium level. This week, we have also seen controversy surrounding the use of cartoon characters on the packaging of some unhealthy foods. Children are enticed by familiar cartoon characters and "pester" their parents to buy them these foods, thereby undermining parental choice and control with regard to what their children consume. So what is the role of the manufacturer in influencing public health? Is the health of the public, both adult and children, the responsibility of the manufacturer or is it morally legitimate for the manufacturer to look after its business interests alone?

Manufacturers run businesses that are geared towards making profits from the products that they sell. This in itself is not morally problematic. Their selling techniques, regardless of whether they are in the form of advertising, packaging or labelling, aim at getting their products sold. If this aim were problematic in itself, one would have to ask what the point of business was but whether these aims can be pursued at all costs is what is at issue here.

To use techniques that make one's products look as good as possible is quite justifiable as long as the information being conveyed is honest and the intention to mislead is absent. If manufacturers make statements about a product that is technically correct but intend that consumers will interpret their statements more positively than they should, then regardless of whether or not they have met legal requirements, from a moral point of view, their actions are misleading. This is true of products that are targeted at either adults or children.

Adults do, however, have the ability and knowledge to be aware of selling techniques and can, quite often, separate the fact from the optimistic, positive statements that they see. The connections between the selling "mechanisms" via television, labelling or packaging and the decision to buy can be subjected to a process of analysis and scrutiny. In some ways, selling mechanisms play tricks with our minds; if we are lured by these techniques, the manufacturers win; if we are not lured by these techniques, then we win.

For children, however, the connections are much simpler. While we may work hard to work out the most efficient pricing, read the health information on the back of the packaging, check for ingredients to which we might be allergic, etc, children just see the product and judge it by aesthetic and "palate" appeal. One factor that contributes to aesthetic appeal is bright, colourful packaging with a familiar cartoon character. Children can relate to these characters because they watch them on television and are, therefore, naturally attracted to foods where these characters appear on their packaging. While some actual cartoon characters are being withdrawn from unhealthy food products, manufacturers are creating their own versions that are intended to serve much the same purpose. Like the real cartoon characters, these ones also rely on the simple connection that children make when deciding what they want. Of course, parents can ultimately decide what to buy their children, but by using this connection, manufacturers know that they are making parental choice much harder. Arguably, to play with adult minds is wrong but at least there is the chance that the adult buyer will make discerning choices; to play with the child consumer’s mind is an act that we would be hard pressed to justify.

There is also the problem that in addition to the attraction of favourite cartoon characters on unhealthy food packaging, unlike adults, children are unable to separate the aesthetics from the health benefits or drawbacks of certain products. Not only are manufacturers taking advantage of the simple connection that children make; they are also benefiting from the fact that children are less aware or sometimes completely unaware of the health benefits of other foods.

What already tastes nice like a bar of chocolate or a packet of sweets can taste nicer if your favourite cartoon character appears to like it too. In terms of their appeal to children, these foods are at an advantage anyway because they taste nicer to most of us. Shrek, for example, even for an adult, is going to be a less successful ambassador for broccoli than he will be for chocolate simply because broccoli is not nearly as exciting as chocolate. Given that sweets and chocolates do their own sales pitch by virtue of their palate appeal, other, less exciting foods should, perhaps, be aided with their sales.

While the simplicity of the connection that children make with regard to their culinary choices is being exploited by manufacturers, what is encouraging is the connection itself. Its simplicity could be used quite successfully to drive healthy eating in children because if their favourite characters were on fruit and vegetable packaging, they might be more inclined to eat these foods. For adults, like me, however, it does not matter where you put my favourite cartoon character. I will always prefer chocolate to broccoli.

I have argued that it might be justifiable for manufacturers to use selling techniques on adults because they are still able to obtain the information they want and ultimately make an informed choice. Children, however, are unable to do this and it is, therefore, wrong for manufacturers to take advantage of this limitation. It may not be the primary duty of manufacturers to promote public health but they do have a duty not to hinder it, especially not where the child, i.e., a vulnerable consumer is involved.