The food industry faces a ticking time-bomb on the issue of obesity. Food manufacturers and retailers have been put on notice to clean up their act or face legislation that would prevent them from advertising unhealthy food to children on television.
The House of Commons Health Select Committee (HSC) last week told the food industry that it has three years in which to become more responsible in the marketing of unhealthy food products and to stop advertising them to children on TV, otherwise legislative changes will be introduced.
Dump the junk
But the food industry might not get that long to take voluntary action. The Government is due to introduce a White Paper called Choosing Health in the UK later this year and reports suggest that Health Secretary John Reid will go further than the HSC by including a ban on junk-food advertising on TV during peak viewing times for children, such as weekday afternoons and weekend mornings.
The HSC report follows a year-long investigation into the increase of obesity and paints a stark picture of the threat facing the UK. Obesity levels in the UK have increased almost 400 per cent in the past 25 years and three-quarters of the population is now considered overweight or obese. The issue is costing the National Health Service &£7.4bn a year, a figure that is predicted to rise rapidly. But the most worrying trend is the increase in childhood obesity, which has tripled in the past 20 years. The report concludes by saying that obesity will soon overtake smoking as the greatest cause of premature death.
Reaction to the report from food marketers has been muted. Cadbury, Walkers, Unilever, Nestlé, Heinz and Golden Wonder all referred Marketing Week to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), refusing to speak specifically about the HSC report.
Sharing the blame
Despite its list of hard-hitting facts, the report is generally considered by the food industry to be “well-rounded”, primarily because it acknowledges that a lack of exercise is a contributory factor to the rise in obesity levels. It is a point that the food industry has long argued and one that the health lobby has sought to play down.
Jeremy Preston, director of the Food Advertising Unit (FAU), which is part of the Advertising Association, says: “We welcome the report and think that it is encouraging that it looked at the totality of the issue including exercise and school and the recognition that GPs need extra help. It also takes a pragmatic view with the three-year timetable.”
Nevertheless the HSC report makes it clear that the food industry must take action and work with the Government and the health lobby to find ways of tackling rising obesity levels.
International Obesity Taskforce director of policy Neville Rigby is a harsh critic of the food industry, but agrees with the report that tackling obesity is not something that the food and advertising industries can do alone. “We do need more than overtures from the advertising associations. What we need is practical co-operation to solve problems. But we also have to address how we raise our children and whether we want to expose them to commercial messages. Everyone has to get together.”
Green for go
One area where that could happen is agreement on food labelling. The report recommends a dramatic overhaul of food labelling and supports the introduction of a “traffic light” system. Red would be used to denote products high in fat and sugar content, such as chocolate bars and cheese, while amber would be used for less harmful products and green for healthy products. The proposed system is supported by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the European Union is also considering its introduction as part of a move to introduce consistent labelling across the EU.
But the FDF, which represents all food manufacturers, believes that the traffic light system and any similar proposals are too simplistic. An FDF spokeswoman says helping consumers to make the right choices is too complex for this system. “The food industry wants to play in the solution but knee-jerk reactions won’t help. We recognise that we have to work with the Government on the solution.”
The report also recommends a review of the marketing of unhealthy products, the use of celebrity endorsements and, more crucially, a voluntary withdrawal of TV advertising of food products with a legislative ban to follow if the food industry fails to take this step.
While the proposals do not go as far as many healthy lobby groups will have hoped, committee chairman David Hinchliffe makes it clear that if the industry does not take this opportunity to self-regulate, the Government will be forced to step in.
He says that the committee “deliberated long and hard” on the issue of advertising, and adds: “We suggest a industry-led voluntary withdrawal, but if nothing happens over the next three years then we would go for a ban.”
But not all members of the HSC believe that self-regulation is the best way forward. Committee member John Austin, Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead, said at the report’s launch last week: “There is a need to work with the industry, but some of us are less confident about that approach [a voluntary withdrawal] than others. I found that there was little difference between some of the people that we met from food companies and the people from the tobacco industry.”
The food and advertising industries also doubt that a withdrawal of food advertising from TV during children’s programming will lead to a decline in obesity levels. They point to Sweden and the Canadian province of Quebec, where restrictions on advertising to children are already in place, but they claim have had no effect on obesity levels. Preston says that the report is confused over the issue. “It says that it doesn’t want to force a ban, but then it says it wants the industry to volunteer to withdraw it. It is unclear what that means.”
Preston disputes the committee’s assertion that advertising has a considerable influence on diet and says that it is not supported by results of the Hastings Report, a FSA-commissioned piece of research into the effect of advertising on consumer choices (MW October 2, 2003). He believes that little progress can be made on this issue unless the effect of advertising is fully understood and clarified.
The HSC itself is a little unclear on how TV advertising is regulated. Its report mistakenly criticises the Advertising Standards Authority for not taking action against a TV campaign for Wotsits, that according to a strategy brief supplied to the committee by agency Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, had the explicit aim of encouraging pester power. In fact at the time of the campaign, it was the Independent Television Commission that handled the regulation of broadcast advertising.
School’s out of bounds
The issue of pester power is one that the HSC is keen to crack down on. It acknowledges that if TV advertising was banned, food companies and their agencies would turn to other methods of promoting their goods through the use of viral marketing, point of purchase, the internet and sponsorship of schemes or events. For this reason, the report proposes a ban on brands sponsoring school-focused initiatives such as Cadbury’s Get Active scheme, which offered sports equipment in return for wrappers. It also calls for an end to branded vending machines that sell only unhealthy food and drink options, instead favouring those machines offering healthier alternatives.
It takes a similar stance on the use of celebrity endorsement and suggests restrictions similar to those that are being introduced in Ireland in the form of a code. From July the promotion of unhealthy food will be limited and a ban will operate on celebrity endorsements such as Gary Lineker’s ads for Walkers.
Get the celebrities out of here
In the UK, Ofcom is reviewing the broadcast advertising codes at the request of Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, under whose remit they fall, and it is anticipated that changes will be made to restrict the use of celebrity endorsement and other forms of broadcast promotion of food products.
HSC chairman Hinchliffe says that public health should be at the centre of government policy and calls for a Cabinet-level public health committee to be set up to oversee any targets that are set across the relevant departments. The report proposes that the Government should keep an open mind on taxing unhealthy foods, but it rules out a suggestion by Jowell that the food and advertising industry pay for public health campaigns as being naive. The wide-ranging report also includes a proposal for the increase in the number of hours of physical exercise that children do at school and a government-funded campaign promoting a balanced diet and exercise.
Act now or lose out
The food industry has been left in no doubt that the debate on obesity has now moved on. Although there are still further reports and consultation exercises to be undertaken by various parties, such as the FSA’s food-labelling initiative and the Food and Health action plan due in July, it will left up to the food industry to take action. And it must start to do so immediately if it is to avoid the threat of legislation.
Key proposals from the Health Select Committee’s report
A voluntary withdrawal of advertising of junk food aimed at children from television within the next three years.
A review of marketing of unhealthy foods, including product endorsement by celebrities such as sport stars. This is to be carried out by Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell and Ofcom.
The introduction of a ‘traffic light’ system of labelling – red for foods high in sugar and fat through to green for products low in sugar and fat.
Guidance to be offered to schools strongly recommending that they do not accept sponsorship from manufacturers of unhealthy foods or vending machines selling such products.
The number of hours of sport at schools should be increased and school meals improved. Both areas should be overseen by Ofsted. Children should be encouraged to walk or cycle to school with improved cycle lanes and walkways.
The launch of government-funded campaigns aimed at promoting healthy food options and balanced lifestyles.
The Government and the food industry to work to reduce levels of salt, sugar and fat in all products and make healthier food more affordable. Super-sizing should be phased out completely.
The Government should keep an open mind on introducing a ‘fat tax’ on food manufacturers and should monitor the progress of this in other countries. In the meantime it should address inconsistencies in VAT levels levied on different foods.