The advertising industry has called on the government to reconsider reported plans to bank junk food advertising, saying it could damage the coronavirus recovery, jobs and people’s livelihoods.
According to a report in the Financial Times, prime minister Boris Johnson is preparing to unveil “sweeping” curbs on how unhealthy food is sold in Britain. That could include a bank on the online advertising of unhealthy foods, a pre-9pm watershed on TV ads and cutdowns on in-store promotion.
Final decisions have not yet been taken on how far the measures will go, with precise details on more prominent labelling on food high in fat, sugar and salt and calorie counts on alcoholic drinks still being debated. But the FT says the advertising and food and drink industry should prepare for a major overhaul of how foods from chocolate to yoghurt drinks to mayonnaise is promoted.
An announcement is expected as soon as next week. But the advertising industry is hoping the government will reconsider the plans.
The Advertising Association’s CEO Stephen Woodford says the ban would be in “direct conflict” with its own evidence that restrictions would have a minimal impact on obesity levels will having a significant economic impact. This is all the more concerning, he says, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.
He adds: “These measures, if introduced, would have significant economic impact at a time when the economy is already under strain due to Covid-19, with thousands of jobs under threat across the UK’s media, advertising, food and retail sectors. The government must reconsider any proposals which could damage the recovery, jobs, and people’s livelihoods, just at the very moment everyone is working so hard to recover.”
ISBA director general Phil Smith is also calling on the government to reconsider, saying it is “deeply concerned” by the reports.
“Brands have partnered effectively with government over the lockdown period to support, develop and amplify public health campaigns as well as safeguard and support employees. Just as business begins to chart a course back from the severe impacts of Covid-19, such an ill-thought out policy cuts across Treasury efforts to support the sector and risks jobs and livelihoods,” he says.
Johnson has previously criticised so-called ‘sin taxes’ but his experience with coronavirus, in which he spent time in intensive care, is understood to have prompted a change of heart. He told the Radio Times in June that he had changed his “libertarian stance on obesity”, blaming his weight for the seriousness of his illness.
The UK already has some of the strictest measures on junk food advertising, including restrictions on TV, outdoor, cinema and online to ensure they do not target children. Previous research by the government has found that restricting placement of HFSS food in stores would cut calorie intake by just nine calories a day in boys and eight in girls.
Critics say a ban on junk food ads would do little to address the underlying causes of obesity while damaging businesses, including broadcasters such as Channel 4 and ITV. In 2018, NHS England found that 64% of adults and 30% of children are overweight or obese despite various initiatives by the government.