Food and drinks industry rejects calls for tighter sugar marketing

The food and drink industry has rejected calls from Public Health England (PHE) to introduce tighter marketing regulations around sugary products, including the controversial “sugar tax” that would see an increase in the price of high sugar products.

Current regulations by Ofcom already place restrictions on the advertising of foods highest in fat, salt and sugar – specifically during children’s TV programmes.

However, PHE says these regulations are not strict enough. While the rules have stopped products with the highest levels of sugar, fat and salt being advertised, it still allows products that are relatively high in one or more of these nutrients to be advertised, it claims in a report published today (22 October).

The restrictions that are currently in place only affect children’s TV advertising specifically and not family TV programming, while other forms of marketing – including the use of brand advertising, sponsorship of TV programmes and ‘advergames’ – are currently either unrestricted or only partially restricted, says PHE.

A review by the Committee of Advertising Practice also demonstrated that products considered to be less healthy are being advertised through online channels, including social networks and mobile apps, raising concerns that children might now be exposed to more advertising for less healthy products.

When it comes to retail promotions, research by IRI released today (22 October) also showed that the UK tops the table with over half of all goods sold on promotion (54.6%, a 0.6% rise). Soft drinks are the most heavily promoted, followed by personal care and confectionery.

More restrictions ahead

In response to these findings, PHE has recommended additional legislation that would reduce children’s exposure to marketing by setting broader and deeper controls on advertising of high sugar items, directly impacting the food and drink industry.

The body seeks to extend current restrictions to apply across the full range of programmes that children are likely to watch instead of limiting this to children specific programmes. It also wants to increase restrictions on advertising across all other forms of broadcast media, social media and advertising and limit price promotions.

The body believes that increasing the price of high sugar products by 10-20% through the use of a tax would likely have an effect on purchasing behaviour and therefore reduce people’s sugar consumption.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, says: “PHE’s evidence review shows there is no silver bullet solution to the nation’s bad sugar habit. A broad and balanced approach is our best chance of reducing sugar consumption to healthier levels and to see fewer people suffering the consequences of too much sugar in the diet.”

A Department of Health spokesperson adds: “We are working closely with PHE, and their evidence on sugar reduction is integral to our policy development to support our childhood obesity strategy — that’s why we commissioned it.”

However the department has not said if it will introduce restrictions on advertising. PM David Cameron has persistently ruled out a “sugar tax”.

The British Heart Foundation has welcomed the report’s recommendations.

Mike Hobday, director of policy at the charity says: “The evidence is clear that no one measure is enough to address the severity of the problem, so we need the Government to introduce a robust childhood obesity strategy that is informed by this report. “

“For example, the existing lack of action to prevent marketers targeting our children with junk food products places at risk the health of the next generation, and this mustn’t continue.”

The industry response

However, the food and drinks industry has rejected many of PHE’s recommendations.

While welcoming the report, the Food and Drink Federation’s director general Ian Wright says:

“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.”

“It may also be possible, by negotiation, to improve the definition of ‘high sugar foods’ as the report suggests. However we do not agree that the international evidence supports the introduction of a sugar tax and for this reason would oppose such a move.”

Ian Barber, communications director at the Advertising Association, adds:

“Like every review before it, PHE’s evidence shows that advertising has a role to play in tackling obesity, but that its impact is small.

“Children are already seeing up to 52% less HFSS advertising thanks to rule changes and work is already underway to look at tightening things further, particularly online, just as PHE recommends.”

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