Campaigners call for junk food and drink advertising ban as British PM hints at interventionism to tackle obesity

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Kitwood
Image: Getty/Kitwood

Related tags: Obesity, Junk food marketing

Public health campaigner Action on Salt and Action on Sugar is calling for an advertising ban on unhealthy foods during the lockdown.

It has written to British prime minister Boris Johnson to complain that certain food companies, including big brands, fast food and delivery businesses have been “capitalising on the government’s ‘stay home’ message by heavily promoting unhealthy food, even to the most vulnerable members of society, who are now a captive audience with little opportunity to leave the house or to get much exercise”.

The letter calls for the British food and drink industry to “unite in the interests of public health and, through a voluntary ‘moratorium’, remove all forms of unhealthy advertising across all media platforms until the 5 June – or until all lockdown restrictions have been lifted.”

The move would follow the recent move from the UK’s betting and gaming companies who agreed to stop advertising their products on both TV and radio during the lockdown, in a bid to reduce exposure to those at risk of addiction. 

Being obese doubles the risk of needing hospital treatment for coronavirus, according to research from Glasgow University. Obesity is also a risk factor for other health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, which have been shown to increase susceptibility to the virus.

“Obesity and type 2 diabetes are widely regarded as two of the nation's most pressing public health issues, yet the promotion of unhealthy food, although acknowledged as an important issue by the Government, continues unabated, with little or no regard to the damaging effect this is having on people’s long-term health (and wallets),” ​continued the letter.

“Surely, we must do everything we can to put the nation’s health first, and if not during a pandemic, then when?”

Should industry brace for a different approach from UK government?

The British prime minister himself is reportedly looking to launch a ‘war on fat’ after recently recovering from the virus. According to The Times​, Johnson believes his weight was the reason he was admitted to intensive care with the virus.

Johnson has historically been opposed to ‘nanny state’ measures such as ‘sin taxes’, believing they unfairly target poorer families.

The UK was one of the first in Europe to introduce a sugar tax on sweetened beverages. But Johnson had vowed not to introduce any new ones until there was proof that taxes "actually stop people from being so fat".

However, the report claims he is now intent on a “much more interventionist” drive to tackle obesity.

Upping the ante  

Following the news that Boris Johnson is calling for a ‘war on obesity’ after his own brush with COVID-19, Professor Graham MacGregor from Queen Mary University and Chair of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said: "Whilst we welcome the news that Boris Johnson is planning a ‘war on obesity’ after his own touch-and-go battle with coronavirus was exacerbated by him being overweight, this particular public health crisis should have never been taken off the agenda in the first place.

"The evidence is clearly there. Being obese doubles the risk of needing hospital treatment for coronavirus. With one in three British adults now clinically obese and latest figures showing one-in-four UK coronavirus fatalities had diabetes (a condition often linked to obesity), the government must ‘get on its bike’ and act now.

"The food industry is feeding us heavily discounted and promoted processed food and drink, full of salt, fat and sugar, giving us little feeling of satiation, which greatly increases our calorie intake. Millions of families face poverty and food insecurity and are unable to access a nutritionally adequate diet.”

He called on the government to:

  • Ensure the food industry only discounts, promotes and advertises healthy food and drink.
  • Force the food industry to reformulate food and drink with less salt, sugar and calories.
  • Ensure NHS Trusts provide keyworkers with the highest nutritional quality food. 
  • Give direct advice to a very concerned public about how to identify their risk, exercise and lose weight safely.

“Now that Mr Johnson has direct experience of this vicious virus, we ask him to protect the most vulnerable people in our society and create a more resilient Great Britain, both now and in the future. The responsibility is his."

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