In a speech about the party’s plans for the country’s National Health Service (NHS), Starmer confirmed he would push ahead for a 9pm TV watershed and online crackdown of HFSS treats as part of a series of backtracks on public health plans.
“I am saying very clearly to those who profit from harming our children - no, not in Britain,” said Starmer.
“We will change advertising rules and we will make sure that products which are harmful to our children’s health: vaping, junk food, sugary snacks, cannot be advertised to our children.”
Starmer reiterated his stance in a BBC interview that it is ‘his very strong view’ that sugary foods should not be advertised to under-18s.
“It’s so bad for their health, so bad for the NHS.”
“This is something the government toyed with and then moved away from,” he said.
“I think that showed a fundamental weakness in their approach - an unseriousness about tackling the issues that really matter.”
In its push to combat rising childhood obesity figures, the ruling Conservative government had first scheduled restrictions on TV and online adverts for HFSS foods in April 2022. The ruling limits the advertising of such products before 9pm, the (parent) self-imposed ceiling before which adverts may be seen by children.
The government then postponed the ban to October 2022, before pushing it to January 2024. In December, it again delayed the ruling, pushing it to 1 October 2025, citing it was prioritising the consumer’s struggle with the cost of living over its ambition to tackle the nation’s obesity crisis.
Starmer, however, has ruled out imposing a tax on HFSS foods, backtracking on the sugar levy on soft drinks introduced by the Tory government in 2016.
“We don’t want to go down the road of making food more expensive in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis,” he said.
“Today, we’ll focus on advertising rather than increasing the cost to food, because I think for many families who are already struggling, the idea that food prices would go up again is something which simply wouldn’t be tolerable from their point of view.”
Health watchdog Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) hails Starmer’s commitment to put obesity back at the top of the nation’s agenda, noting consumer research found 80% of UK adults supported the advertising ban, while nearly 70% would support the sugar tax being extended to other products.
“We hugely welcome the announcement that Labour are making a bold and necessary commitment,” said OHA director Katharine Jenner.
Added Barbara Crowther, children’s food campaign coordinator for Sustain, “We are pleased to see the importance that Labour puts on ensuring a healthy childhood, including the need to get back on track and implement regulations to protect children from relentless junk food marketing.
“With millions of people struggling to access healthy food every day, this is the right thing and the smart thing to do. We hope there will be more to come from Labour in terms of further smart incentives for healthier products, healthier business and a healthier nation.”
Mhairi Brown, policy, public affairs and international project lead for Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said, “We are encouraged to learn that Sir Keir Starmer’s health missions will have a significant focus on the role of prevention in delivering a sustainable NHS, with specific commitments on delivering the restrictions on junk food advertising and a target to improving children’s health as part of a wider mission to tackle health inequalities.
“Whilst there was no commitment to extending the soft drinks industry levy to other categories, his government must find equally effective measures which incentivise the food industry to reduce the sugar and salt in their junk food products.
“Labour is best placed to do this: the previous Labour government initiated a successful programme to reduce levels of salt in food. Progress has since stalled under the Conservatives but must be reinvigorated with mandatory targets.”
However, with an election at least a year away, the earliest Sir Stamer’s party will be able to introduce these restrictions will be January 2025.