The plan is part of the UK government’s anti-obesity strategy. Originally delayed until October, causing celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to protest outside Downing Street, it has been pushed back to October 2025. Some speculate that this could in reality mean an indefinite end of the measure.
The benefits of the delay are, as stressed by PM Rishi Sunak, greater choice for consumers during a cost-of-living crisis. Indeed, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), food inflation in April 2023 was at a rate of 19.1%. But what are the drawbacks of the delay, especially in relation to the nation’s health?
“Obesity rates will continue to rise if we don’t bring in preventative measures,” Katharine Jenner, Director of the Obesity Health Alliance, told FoodNavigator. “Already the costs to the NHS are forecast to rise from £6bn (€7.03) to £9.7bn by 2050.”
The measure would not even negatively affect the cost of living, Hattie Burt, Senior Policy and International Projects Officer at campaign group Action on Salt, told FoodNavigator.
“The government’s own data shows that multi-buy promotions on unhealthy food cause people to spend 20% more than they intended. This marketing technique is applied to higher sugar products more than any other foods, resulting in consumers buying 6% more sugar than they otherwise would have done.
“If multi-buys on products high in sugar, salt and saturated fat were stopped, people would have money freed up to buy healthier products. Furthermore, such restrictions would force food and drink companies to place such offers and marketing tactics on healthier products, helping the population eat better.”
It is the government’s own obesity strategy that shows how harmful the delay would be, Burt suggested. “In combination with other evidence-based policies from the government’s childhood obesity strategy, including existing location restrictions and the delayed advertising restrictions, stopping companies from using price promotions on unhealthy products would give us all a better opportunity to enjoy a healthy and nutritious diet, with reduced risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”
The ban, said Obesity Health Alliance’s Jenner, was to be world-leading, meaning that no European market, or indeed any market, had tried it before. Action on Sugar’s Burt concurred, saying “if the UK government were to bring in restrictions on multi-buy offers for unhealthy food, it would be one of the first countries globally to do so.
“However, the reason this policy was proposed in the government’s evidence-based childhood obesity strategy is that the need is much greater in the UK: products on promotion account for 40% of total food and drink spending in Britain compared to just 20% in other European countries such as Germany, France and Spain.”
However, other restrictions around junk food, such as those in Chile, have been highly successful.
Chile’s junk food regulation success
While Chile did not go for food prices directly, it targeted advertising instead, trying to limit children’s exposure to junk-food advertising. Products will have their advertising regulated if they are high in energy, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Therefore, advertisements promoting these products are known as “high-in” ads.
Chile banned high-in advertisements for programmes either made for children, or those for which children made up more than 20% of the audience, beginning in 2016. Adverts for high-in products using child-directed marketing, such as those involving child actors, and those with cartoons, toys or games, were also banned. In the second phase in 2018, all high-in advertising was banned between 6am and 10pm.
The level of ads for high-in products dramatically dropped between the pre-regulatory period and the second phase. In the pre-regulatory period in 2016, 70% of food ads were for high-in products, whereas after the regulation in 2019, only 29% were. The weekly number of high-in ads dropped 64% between the two periods.
Despite a continuing presence of child-directed appeals in high-in advertising, the study significantly reduced such appeals. Overall, it was successful in reducing, if not outright abolishing, children’s exposure to high-in advertising.
How to implement junk food regulation in Europe
Many campaigners believe that the UK government’s delay will set back progress in their efforts to reduce obesity and the consumption of HFSS foods. What could be done to both restrict the consumption of junk food and address the cost-of-living crisis?
The problem can be mitigated, Obesity Health Alliance’s Jenner told us, by having “special offers can be on healthier food that is actually on your shopping list, rather than unhealthier food and drink you didn’t intend to buy.”
Action on Sugar’s Burt calls for more wide-ranging reform. “Rising food prices are a global problem and the government should be asking supermarkets and multi-national food manufacturers to do everything they can do make healthy food more affordable.
“The government must automatically enrol all eligible families for the NHS Healthy Start Scheme, which provides access to healthy fruit, vegetables, milk and vitamins to those who need it most.
“Access to the scheme makes staple, nutritious foods more available for low-income families but around 200,000 families are missing out on an estimated £68 million of nutritious food because they do not know they are eligible.”
She also suggests measures similar to Chile’s successful restrictions. “The government must urgently bring in its planned restrictions on the advertising of unhealthy food and drink before 9pm on TV and online. This crucial policy, currently delayed until October 2025, would stop people being bombarded with cues to buy products that are high in salt, sugar and fat, leaving them freer to make healthier choices.”
Finally, says Burt, the government must tackle the issue of the food itself. “The government must also go further and implement policies that will limit levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat in food and drinks, given the strength of evidence linking these to ill health and preventable deaths.”
Sourced From: International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
'Restricting child-directed ads is effective, but adding a time-based ban is better: evaluating a multi-phase regulation to protect children from unhealthy food marketing on television’
Published on: 26 May 2023
Authors: F. R. D. Carpentier, F. M. Stoltze, M. Reyes, L. S. Taillie, C. Corvalán & T. Correa