MPs ramp up pressure on marketers with move to ban junk food ads

The marketing industry is coming under renewed pressure to change its tactics as a report by the Commons Health Select committee recommends the Government tackle the UK’s obesity crisis by banning the advertising of junk food during family TV shows and suggests a 20% tax on sugary drinks and sweets.

The committee report calls on the UK Government to be “far more ambitious” about efforts to tackle childhood obesity. Besides banning junk food advertising during popular family TV shows, MPs also called for an outright ban on supermarkets placing sweets and junk food at checkouts or the ends of aisles.

The use of cartoon characters and celebrities in children’s advertising should also face tighter restrictions. The report will be followed by The Petitions Committee debating sugar tax in parliament alongside Jamie Oliver later today (30 November). David Cameron, meanwhile, is set to launch the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan in early 2016.

The response to the committee’s report from the advertising industry has been overwhelmingly negative, with the Advertising Association’s director of communications Ian Barber saying the report “reflects a narrow, medical perspective”.

He said: “The bigger picture is that food advertising in the UK is among the most strictly regulated in the world, children see far fewer HFSS ads on TV today than ever before and new rules already being considered would mean no advertising targeted at children in any media.

“Those regulations reflect the evidence as to whether advertising affects children’s preferences and diet, the answer to which is yes, but only a little. Proportionate regulation matters because without advertising, we stifle choice, competition and innovation and threaten funding for the programmes and content we all enjoy. A 9pm watershed is an analogue measure for a digital age that would hit programme budgets hard, even on channels with few or no children watching.”

Action on Sugar has also released an action plan to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis, banning all types of marketing of unhealthy food and drink to children and adolescents across all platforms, including digital. Other recommendations include adding a 20% tax on sweets and sugary drinks and uniform colour-coded labelling on all foods for retail and out-of-home.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of Action on Sugar says: “David Cameron now has a unique opportunity to produce a coherent, structured evidence-based plan to prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

“These conditions are preventable if the food environment is changed. Current policies are ineffective and we now require policies that work.”

The body’s report includes a six-point action plan, urging the Government to establish an independent agency for nutrition, which can carry out monitoring with regulation and enforcement if necessary. It also recommends a crackdown on promotions of unhealthy food in all supermarkets, convenience stores and the out-of-home sector including restaurants, cafes and takeaways.

Earlier this year, the Federation for Food and Drink (FDF) rejected calls for tighter sugar marketing. Its director general Ian Wright said: “Steps are already in hand to ensure that high fat, salt and sugar foods will not be advertised to children. Likewise, the industry has already removed millions of calories from the food chain and will continue to make progress on this through reformulation and changes to portion/pack sizes.”

Brands taking ‘action’

Back in July, fast-food chain Leon announced that it would team up with Jamie Oliver by putting a 10p levy on their soft drinks with added sugar. However, this led to criticism from the FDF. According to Wright, the restaurant chain took the wrong approach by focusing on sugar instead of calories.

“I do find it inconsistent that the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group and Leon Restaurant Groups, neither of which provide nutrition labelling on in-store menus or support Government’s drive to reduce calories, have chosen to tax customers choosing soft drinks,” he said.

“Additional burdensome taxes on foods or drinks, on top of the already enforced 20% VAT on most foods, would be regressive, ineffective and unworkable.”

Asda CEO and IGD president Andy Clarke also revealed the launch of a new three-point programme to combat falling public health standards in the UK market in October.

With a 30-strong group of CEOs from the biggest food and drink brands – including Coca-Cola, Sainsbury’s, Unilever and Tesco – the programme will focus on improving national health through reformulation, educating young people to use on pack nutritional information, and encouraging work staff to eat more healthily.

“We must focus on lowering childhood obesity and sugar levels, but it is even deeper than that,” Clarke said. “It’s about thinking about the total level of calories too.”