In 2019 the government consulted on restricting advertising of High Fat, Sugar and salt foods (HFSS) for TV and online in its attempt to combat obesity, which it claims is one of the greatest long-term health challenges the country faces.
It asked for views on whether to extend current advertising restrictions on broadcast TV and online media, including consulting on watershed restrictions. In July 2020 the government confirmed its intention to introduce a 9pm watershed on TV.
A new consultation announced today goes further and looks at how a total HFSS advertising restriction could be implemented online. The consultation will ask questions on what types of advertising will be restricted; who will be liable for compliance; and the enforcement of the restrictions
Public health campaigners welcomed the plans. Professor Graham MacGregor, Chair of Action on Sugar said: “It gives the opportunity for ministers to hear from the many parents who are frustrated with their children being bombarded with advertising for unhealthy foods.”
He added that UK lockdowns in response to COVID-19 have ‘vastly increased children’s exposure to such irresponsible marketing which casts unhealthy products in the spotlight'.
“It’s therefore vital that a total ban across all online platforms is introduced which would ensure that all loopholes, including paid-for promotions whereby brands are using marketing techniques to push junk food ads, would be firmly closed and help turn the tide on obesity,” he said.
Dr Saul Konviser of the Dental Wellness Trust agreed that a total online ban on promotions and advertising of HFSS food and drink products would help combat tooth decay.
"As the latest figures by the Local Government Association show, nearly 45,000 hospital operations were performed to remove rotten teeth in 2018/19 which is a stark reminder that too much sugar, especially in children's diets, can have dire consequences,” he said. “And what’s most concerning is this is all entirely preventable."
Short consultancy time ‘beggars belief’
But the Food and Drink Federation said it 'beggars belief' that the industry had only been given six weeks to respond.
The FDF’s head of UK diet and health policy Kate Halliwell said: “The length of the consultation potentially hampers the industry’s ability to respond effectively at a time when businesses are facing enormous pressure.
“It could not come at a worse time for food and drink manufacturers – the industry is preparing for its busiest time of the year and working flat out to keep the nation fed through lockdown, all while facing down the very real threat of a no-deal Brexit.”
In a joint statement, the leaders of the Advertising Association, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the Internet Advertising Bureau UK said obesity is ‘rightly recognised’ by the public and by health experts as a ‘complex problem’ - but one for which there is ‘no single answer’.
“The proposal to completely outlaw online advertising of certain food and drink is a severe and disproportionate measure that goes far beyond the Government’s objective of protecting children,” they said.
The organisations called the move 'heavy-handed' and urged ministers to engage with the industry. “This consultation has landed just as we have entered another period of lockdown, with all the heightened uncertainty this creates for people and businesses right across the country,” they continued.
“To borrow the Prime Minister’s language, this is not an ‘oven ready’ policy; it is not even half-baked. But it does have all the ingredients of a kick in the teeth for our industry from a Government which we believed was interested in prioritising economic growth alongside targeted interventions to support health and wellbeing.”
IEA Head of Lifestyle Economics Christopher Snowdon took aim at the number of products potentially affected by the plans.
“The government is proposing a total ban on all internet advertising for a huge range of perfectly normal food and drink products. It will cover everything from jam and yoghurt to Cornish pasties and mustard, and will include all forms of online advertising, including paid-for search engine listings, emails and even text messages - at any time day or night,” he said.
"No country in the world has attempted anything like this and with good reason. It will permanently exclude businesses large and small from the primary marketing medium of our time. It is an ill-considered policy designed by fanatics who have mis-sold it to politicians as a ban on ‘junk food’ advertising. It will be hugely damaging to food producers, especially small businesses and start-up companies, and will have no impact on obesity. No one has ever been harmed by an advert for a pork pie.”