UK set to tighten restrictions under revised Childhood Obesity Plan

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Junk food marketing to kids could be regulated by UK government ©istock/Pedro Playa
Junk food marketing to kids could be regulated by UK government ©istock/Pedro Playa
The UK government is to reform its Childhood Obesity Plan raising the prospect of tighter controls on junk food marketing.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, has confirmed that discussions are underway for a revised plan.

Asked at Food Standards Scotland’s conference in Edinburgh yesterday (28 March 28) what she wanted to see in a rumoured Childhood Obesity Plan 2, she said: “That’s supposed to be top secret.”

Tedstone then went on to say that she hoped there were “big things”​ in the new strategy. This could include tougher laws on advertising of unhealthy food and drinks. “I hope there are going to be some hard things to achieve in there.”

In its advice to government in 2015 on how to reduce sugar consumption, PHE said that a successful programme should include a reduction and rebalancing of the number and type of price promotions in supermarkets and the out of home sector.

The expert group also called on the government to “significantly reduce opportunities to market and advertise high sugar food and drink products to children and adults across all media including digital platforms”.

However, these recommendations were not included in the government’s plan, published by the prime minister Theresa May in August 2016 – in fact, marketing was completely ignored in the short document.

“We didn’t get further restrictions on advertising,”​ said Tedstone, or indeed “any​” restrictions on price promotions. “You have to be super-human to avoid some of the promotions in supermarkets,”​ she said.

In an analysis of more than 77,000 supermarket price promotions, the consumer group Which? found that 53% involved less healthy foods – those high in fat, saturates, sugar or salt.

The UK has gone further than most countries in relation to advertising. Last year new rules were introduced banning ads for food and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) in children’s non-broadcast media​. Ads for these products can no longer appear around TV-like content either. 

Still, the rules only apply to media where children make up over 25% of the audience and campaigners believe they are not restrictive enough.

The UK’s Obesity Health Alliance has said the regulations are “full of loopholes​”. Last week, Cancer Research UK claimed that food manufacturers are being given “free rein to target young people”​ with junk food ads. The World Health Organisation has voiced similar concerns at a European and global level​. 

Speaking at an event in Edinburgh last month, Shahriar Coupal, director of advertising policy and practice at the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, defended the Committee on Advertising Practice rules. He also said that the evidence of advertising’s impact on children’s diets “falls considerably short of justifying restrictions​”.

“The evidence tells us there is an impact [from food and drink advertising] on children's food preferences. But not so great we believe as to warrant the kinds of restriction that we're hearing about in [Scotland’s proposed] obesity strategy,”​ he said.

In Scotland, the government wants to introduce tougher restrictions on advertising of junk foods, including a 9pm watershed. However, advertising laws are currently not devolved within the UK.

Setting out proposals for its own obesity strategy, the Scottish government also said it is “minded”​ to restrict price promotions for unhealthy foods.

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