The government is facing a fresh wave of criticism – both from the advertising industry and campaign groups – as it again pushes back plans for a ban on junk food advertising ahead of the 9pm watershed.
While the industry welcomes the delay, it is still urging the government to scrap the ban in favour of alternative methods to tackle obesity. Meanwhile, health groups have called the additional delay “disgraceful”.
The ad ban for foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) will now not come into effect until 2025. It was originally slated to come into force from January 2023, but was delayed by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in May. It has now been pushed back further by current PM Rishi Sunak.
ISBA’s director-general Phil Smith agrees with the government’s decision to delay the ban, but suggests the time is used to “think again” about how to tackle obesity.
He is urging the government to stop viewing a ban on advertising as a “silver bullet” as the “evidence shows that restrictions of this kind would make no difference to child obesity levels”.
“This is the right decision for advertisers who were facing an impossible task to comply with these restrictions. The political uncertainty over the past year has meant that there is no designated regulator for these measures, no guidance and no clarity on either the products in scope or the type of ads that it would be acceptable to run. Bringing them into force either in 2023 or 2024 would have been unworkable,” says Smith.
“Rather than reach for bans and watersheds, government should think about the targeted intervention, promotion of food education and investment in physical activity which would truly move the dial.”
Stephen Woodford, CEO of the Advertising Association, agrees that while the delay is “helpful” for planning purposes, he also believes it is still the “wrong policy and will do nothing to tackle obesity”.
“Addressing the challenges of obesity in this country require well-funded, multi-faceted programmes focused on making changes in local communities, not population-wide and non-targeted approaches like advertising bans,” he adds.
While the delay will give businesses more time to “get to grips” with the new rules once they have been clarified, Richard Lindsay, director of legal and public affairs at the IPA, says the organisation remains of the view “advertising restrictions will do nothing to tackle childhood obesity and that the focus should be on addressing its root causes”.
Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance, says: “Delaying junk food advertising restrictions is a shocking move by the government, with no valid justification to do so, other than giving a flimsy excuse that businesses need more time to prepare and reformulate.”
She points to a study published yesterday that shows cases of type 2 diabetes in young adults have risen faster in Britain than anywhere else in the world.
“What other evidence does our Prime Minister need not to delay implementing key obesity policies? Research shows restricting junk food adverts on TV and online would significantly reduce the number of children with excess weight,” she adds.
“This is the action of a government that seems to care more about its own short-term political health than the longer-term health of children. We urge Rishi Sunak to reverse this attack on child health and to shorten the delay to 2024, to at least give children a better chance to grow up healthy.”
Meanwhile, the CEO of Diabetes UK describes the delay as “disgraceful”.
“This measure is part of a vital toolkit to rebalance health inequalities and these delays directly undermine the government’s own commitments to halving childhood obesity by 2030 and improving the nation’s health,” says Chris Askew, the charity’s boss.
“The environment around us heavily influences our food choices and in delaying the junk food marketing ban, the government is giving companies the green light to continue to bombard children with adverts for foods high in fat, salt and sugar, making it needlessly difficult to choose healthy options.”
He believes the delay will “disproportionately impact” households on the lowest income, who he says are targeted by a greater amount of advertising for unhealthy food.
“The government’s shameful decision to delay these vital measures means that people living in the most deprived areas will continue to be pushed towards unhealthy options, further entrenching the health inequalities that exist in rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity in England,” Askew adds.
Professor David Strain, chair of the BMA’s board of science, agrees the delay could be detrimental to the health of young people, adding the decision shows a “lack of political will and courage that is difficult to fathom”.
“For years we have set out the evidence as clearly as we can that the current advertising restrictions are not fit for purpose, and are not protecting children and young people from excessive marketing influence,” says Strain.
“Moreover the public agree with us, with 74% of people supporting a watershed to stop junk food adverts being shown before 9pm on TV and online.”
In September, former PM Liz Truss said she would be reviewing the ad ban, a move that was welcomed by marketing bodies at the time. They urged her to “take a step back, take stock and review the evidence as to whether the 9pm watershed and online ban on HFSS products would work”.