A nine o’clock watershed for junk food adverts could become part of Labour Party policy in the run-up to the UK general election next year.
The marketing of unhealthy food to children is on the Labour Party policy agenda up for consultation and among the ideas “on the table” is that the advertising of unhealthy foods should not be screened before nine pm.
The current restriction on the marketing of unhealthy food and drink in the UK only covers children’s television programmes. However, marketers can still advertise unhealthy products during some of the television programmes most watched by children, such as X-Factor.
This “loophole” was highlighted in recent research commissioned by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), as part of the Action on Junk Food Marketing campaign, which showed that children’s TV viewing peaked at around eight pm.
One of the researchers, Dr Emma Boyland, from the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, University of Liverpool, told FoodNavigator: “There is a clear and substantial body of evidence that food marketing has a detrimental effect on children’s diets, and yet the current regulations focus almost entirely on dedicated children’s programmes.”
She explained that this is because of the use of audience indexing, which relies on the proportion of children in the audience rather than the actual number.
Boyland added: “This ignores the real viewing habits of young people in the UK, which is to spend a majority of their TV time watching non-children’s programming, and therefore they are still being exposed to excessive promotion of HFSS (high in fat, salt or sugar) foods.
“Establishing a nine pm watershed would ensure a massive reduction in this exposure and therefore be a really positive step towards creating a food environment more conducive to healthy living.”
A Labour Party spokesman said that issues around the marketing of unhealthy food to children, among others, were “still on the table” and its finalised consultation paper will come out within the month.
Analysis of more than 750 adverts found that nearly a quarter of those shown between eight and nine pm were for food.
The most frequently shown adverts promoted unhealthy products from supermarkets such as Aldi and Morrisons (25%), followed by fast-food chains such as KFC (13%), with chocolate and sweet companies like Lindt and Haribo the third most common (12%).
Adverts screened between eight and nine pm were said to be designed for a young audience, with nearly a third of food adverts shown using themes of “fun” rather than more adult concerns of price or convenience.
Meanwhile more than half of the clips used children or child-aged characters to promote the food products.
Recent Accenture data, which assessed children’s TV viewing habits in EU countries, shows that many brands have either voluntarily pulled food advertisements or are only advertising products that meet strict nutrition criteria during children’s programming.