The government has unveiled plans to introduce a ban on junk food advertising across TV and online prior to the 9pm watershed in the UK. Number 10 is also debating whether to outlaw adverts for high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products online altogether.
From now on, ‘Buy one get one free’ deals on unhealthy food will be banned and there will be restrictions on where HFSS products can be promoted in store, including a ban on chocolates, crisps and sweets being sold at the checkout.
Restaurant, cafe or takeaway chains with more than 250 employees will be required to label the calories of their meals on the menu and the government has launched a consultation on plans to provide the same information for alcoholic drinks.
In addition, Number 10 will roll out a consultation on front of pack nutritional labelling to understand how the current ‘traffic light’ labelling system is being used by consumers.
The measures are part of a £10m Public Health England campaign called ‘Better Health’, aimed at getting people fitter after four months of lockdown. Running across TV, radio, outdoor, online and print, it is thought the campaign will have a particular focus on people of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, who have suffered disproportionately high death rates during the pandemic.
Calling obesity “a time bomb”, the government says it wants to urgently tackle the issue as official statistics show nearly 8% of critically ill patients with Covid-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population.
Number 10 cites research published by Cancer Research UK in September 2019 that suggests almost half of all food adverts (47.6%) shown on ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One were for HFSS products. That rises to almost 60% between 6pm and 9pm – the peak viewing period for children.
Reacting to the obesity strategy, Cancer Research UK says the restrictions on junk food adverts are “vital” in helping families gain greater control of their diets and help reduce childhood obesity.
However, fears are the ad ban will have a big impact on the broadcasters, which are already suffering as a result of brands pulling spend due to the pandemic. Estimates are the proposals could cost British broadcasters more than £200m in lost revenue. It is thought ITV alone could lose £100m in income, while the loss to Channel 4 would in the region of £40m.
Critics of the strategy also point to confusion over the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ promotion, which will offer consumers a 50% discount on food up to the value of £10 per diner, between 3 to 31 August, in a bid to stimulate the economy. The deal includes meals bought at fast food chains and those high in fat, sugar and salt.
The IPA says it is “deeply disappointed” by the government’s new obesity strategy, adding that the government’s own research shows that a TV ad ban would reduce children’s consumption by only 1.7 calories a day.
IPA director general, Paul Bainsfair, says the proposals disregard the government’s own evidence and “punish the very businesses that have been helping the country get through the Covid-19 crisis, including food manufacturers, retailers and commercial broadcasters”. He argues the new measures fail to acknowledge the UK’s “highly respected self-regulatory system”, which imposes “tough rules” on the advertising of HFSS products across all media.
“The proposals come at the worst possible time for the advertising sector and for industry. The government should be supporting businesses which have been reeling from the Covid-19 crisis, not banning them from advertising their products,” Bainsfair adds.
“The government is encouraging the country to Eat Out to Help Out, but at the same time intending to introduce a ban on advertising HFSS products. Advertising fuels the economy and should be used as a key enabler in getting the country’s economy back on its feet. Ad bans will do the opposite.”