MPs call for tougher restrictions on junk food marketing

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

Related tags Junk food marketing Childhood obesity sugar tax

The UK Government should introduce tougher restrictions on marketing and advertising of junk food, according to a committee behind a report into childhood obesity.

The Commons health select committee report​ backed a 9pm watershed on junk food advertising and aligning regulations on non-broadcast media with broadcast.

It called for a ban on brand-generated or licensed TV and film characters to promote HFSS (high fat, sugar and salt) items on broadcast and non-broadcast media.

Government will soon publish a refreshed version of the childhood obesity plan set out in 2016.

Written comments on 9pm watershed

British Retail Consortium (BRC): Setting a 9pm watershed is a blunt instrument; many of our members’ advertisements are clearly aimed at adults, for example dining in experiences, but would still be potentially affected by a blanket ban.

Food and Drink Federation (FDF): Restricting HFSS advertising before 9pm would detrimentally impede the ability of food and drink manufacturers to market their products to adult consumers.

Advertising Standards Authority (ASA): The wrong restrictions on TV advertising would come at the cost of wasted time, wasted political capital and less broadcaster revenue to invest in the TV programmes that many of us enjoy watching.

The committee said it should include a commitment to end sponsorship of sports clubs, venues, youth leagues and tournaments by brands associated with HFSS products. 

The government should ban confectionery and other unhealthy foods from the ends of aisles and checkouts, according to the committee.

Aldi and Lidl banned confectionery from checkouts in 2015 followed by Tesco, Boots and Morrisons in large stores but such items remain prevalent in small outlets.

Restrict price promotions and extend soft drinks levy

The committee said there must be a restriction on promotions which drive higher consumption of unhealthy food and drink. However, this does not mean food will be more expensive as retailers could change offers to healthier products.

It also urged an extension to the soft drinks industry levy to milk-based beverages and food groups such as puddings and chocolate confectionery.

Estimates suggest nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese in the UK and younger generations are becoming obese earlier and staying obese for longer.

Chair of the committee and Conservative MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston, said government must change the narrative around childhood obesity.

“It should also act to protect children by banning the offers and displays that push high volume sales and impulse buying of junk food and drink,” ​she said.

"Obesity rates are highest for children from the most disadvantaged communities and this unacceptable health inequality has widened every year since records began. I welcome the sugary drinks levy that has already played a vital role in driving reformulation and call for this to be extended to milky drinks which contain added sugar.”

Local authority powers

The committee said the next childhood obesity plan must make it easier for local authorities to limit unhealthy food outlets.

It added they need further powers to limit HFSS food and drink billboard advertising near schools.

Written comments on reformulation

The Food Foundation: A biscuit with less sugar is slightly less unhealthy than a regular biscuit, but it remains a long way from the healthfulness of an apple. If a reformulated product is allowed to market itself as the ‘healthy’ option, this may mislead the public into believing that it is healthier than it really is – for just because one nutrient has been reduced in a product doesn’t mean the overall health profile has significantly improved.

Nestlé UK: From an industry perspective, an unintended consequence of voluntarism is that it creates an un-level playing field. Companies that voluntarily invest to reformulate their products are disadvantaged compared to those that take time to act, or take only limited action.

Councillor Linda Thomas, vice chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) community wellbeing board, said doing nothing is not an option.

“Without action, and unless councils have more powers, the health of individuals will continue to suffer, health inequalities associated with obesity will remain, and the economic and social costs will increase to unsustainable levels,” ​she said.

“No single measure is likely to be effective on its own in tackling obesity, which is why wide-ranging reforms based on a joined-up approach is vital to preventing this ill health timebomb on society and tackling health inequalities.”

Obese when leaving primary school

Analysis by the LGA, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, found more than 22,000 children aged 10 and 11 (in the final year of primary school) are severely obese. The figure is nearly double that of those in reception (four and five year olds).

Severe obesity rates vary by region and are highest in children living in the most-deprived areas.

The LGA said figures should serve as a “wake-up call” for action to tackle the crisis.

Prevention work is being hampered by a £600m reduction in councils’ public health budgets by central government between 2015/16 and 2019/20.

LGA called for councils to have a say in how the soft drinks levy is spent and for them to have powers to ban junk food advertising near schools.

Councillor Izzi Seccombe, chairman of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, said the figures are a further wake-up call for urgent joined-up action.

“The UK is already the most obese nation in Western Europe, with one in three 10 and 11-year-olds and one in five four and five-year-olds classed as overweight or obese, respectively.

“Unless we tackle this obesity crisis, today’s obese children will become tomorrow’s obese adults whose years of healthy life will be shortened by a whole host of health problems including diabetes, cancer and heart disease.”

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