‘Writing the Rules of the Game’: Non-market Strategy, commercial interests and health policy

The UK Government has recently published a set of proposals and statements about restricting commercial activity as part of an approach to tackle obesity.  We have also seen the first stage of a ‘National’ Food Strategy be published.  In Scotland previous proposals to tackle ‘junk food’ and other promotions have had to be paused while the COVID responses become clearer. Health policy and restrictions on marketing, promotion and sales have become very topical.

I have covered some of the background to aspects of the broad context previously.  Our work for Food Standards Scotland three years ago provides some background to health policy and retail shops.  I have also discussed the role of retailers as social engineers, policy interventions for healthier diets, the  large store ‘health levy’ and its quick demise and the healthcare retail standard for hospital shops.  All cover what may be seen as a government ‘interference’ in commercial activities in an attempt to improve population health.

More broadly in intervention terms in Scotland we have seen the smoking ban, tobacco display legislation, plastic bag levy, minimum unit pricing on alcohol (and the long legal battle to stop it) and the deposit return scheme.  All (and not all are public health issues) have been challenged strongly, often under the guise of the ‘nanny state’ or interference in rightful business.  The fight over the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (the ‘Sugar Tax’) provides another example of this defence of entrenched profitable positions, as do the changes to the Public Health Responsibility Deal as it developed.  The long battle against tobacco (and its addiction and health damage) and plain packaging, visual merchadising and display control is another illustration (see one small example of practice here).

Market positions and companies that are challenged by public health measures erect defensive barriers to protect that position. That much is obvious; but how can we think about these practices?


I am one of the co-authors of a paper, recently accepted for publication and available online in Social Science and Medicine.  The lead author, Elizabeth Eastmure, is currently completing her PhD (see her work with colleagues on the Public Health Responsibility Deal)  and is lead-supervised by Professor Steven Cummins (with whom I worked a long while ago in the health impacts of food superstores in Glasgow and who is an expert on aspects of public health, health interventions and food policy).

Our paper outlines the role of non-market strategy and its relevance to public health.  We define three broad categories of non-market strategy using examples relevant to public health and outline why understanding such activities/strategy are important for public health researchers to understand.

Businesses operate in the market through the development and maintenance of a range of products and services, supported by activities including advertising, promotion and pricing with the primary good of making a profit.  However the market does not exist in a vacuum and is not a neutral entity, being constructed by political, cultural and social forces, which can be collectively referred to as the ‘non-market’.  This too is maintained and developed by businesses.  While the ‘rules of the game’ are perhaps a given in the market, use of non-market strategy is about ‘writing the rules of the game’.  Our paper explores how these rules are written.  Understanding this is important for policy development as it helps understand how, why and where challenge to public health interventions might occur and some of the tools and methods used by businesses to protect their market positions.

Elsevier have provided 50 days free access to the article and you can get a copy (until September 25th 2020) by clicking on this link


Eastmure E.; Cummins S. and L. Sparks.  Non-market strategy as a framework for exploring commercial involvement in health policy: a primer.  Social Science of Medicine, Volume 262, October 2020


A copy is also available via the University of Stirling’s research repository (STORRE): at http://hdl.handle.net/1893/31517

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
This entry was posted in Academics, Alcohol, Consumers, Diet and Health, Food Retailing, Food Standards Scotland, Health, Healthcare Retail Standard, Hospital Shops, Large Store Levy, Markets, Non-market Strategy, Politicians, Profits, Promotion, Public Health, Public Health lev, Public Policy, Regulation, Retail Levy, Scottish Government, Sugar Tax, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to ‘Writing the Rules of the Game’: Non-market Strategy, commercial interests and health policy

  1. Pingback: 2020 – my year in articles | Stirlingretail

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