Online junk food adverts could be BANNED in obesity crisis crackdown

Online junk food adverts could be BANNED in obesity crisis crackdown but industry hits out at ‘heavy-handed’ proposals

  • The Government is set to launch a six-week consultation on the issue from today
  • Industry bosses say it has come at ‘worst time’ for food and drink manufacturers
  • Advertising bosses say move would be a ‘severe and disproportionate’ measure
  • The consultation comes as the Government continues crack down on obesity 

Junk food adverts could be banned online as the government continues its crackdown on obesity with ministers announcing a new consultation today.  

The proposals aim to target online advertisements for products that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) and will restrict a wide range of advertising methods including banner ads and paid-for ads on social media.

It comes as the Government continues to crackdown on obesity since it launched the ‘better health strategy’ in July.

The campaign followed Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation after the Prime Minister contracted coronavirus.

Amid growing evidence people who are overweight or obese are at greater risk from coronavirus, Mr Johnson admitted he was ‘too fat’ when he went into hospital and urged the nation to follow his lead in deciding to lose weight.

The Government has launched a consultation on proposals to ban online ads for junk food as part of its efforts to tackle obesity. Pictured: Boris Johnson who announced in July he was trying to lose weight after his battle with Covid-19 as he urged the nation to do the same

Ban will target advertisements for foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Pictured: a Big Mac

What types of adverts could be banned under new government rules? 

The proposed ban on junk food adverts online will target food and drink products that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS).

The scope of the restriction would include, but is not limited to, for example:

  • commercial email, commercial text messaging and other messaging services
  • marketers’ activities in non-paid for space, for example on their website and on social media, where the marketer has editorial and/or financial control over the content
  • online display ads in paid-for space (including banner ads and pre/mid-roll video ads)
  • paid-for search listings; preferential listings on price comparison sites
  • viral advertisements
  • paid-for advertisements on social media channels – native content, influencers etc
  • in-game advertisements
  • commercial classified advertisements
  • advertisements which are pushed electronically to devices
  • advertisements distributed through web widgets
  • in-app advertising or apps intended to advertise
  • advergames
  • advertorials 

The move has been criticised by campaigners, and the FDF said it ‘beggars belief’ the industry had only been given six weeks to respond.

The FDF’s head of UK diet and health policy Kate Halliwell said: ‘The length of the consultation potentially hampers the industry’s ability to respond effectively at a time when businesses are facing enormous pressure.

‘It could not come at a worse time for food and drink manufacturers – the industry is preparing for its busiest time of the year and working flat out to keep the nation fed through lockdown, all while facing down the very real threat of a no-deal Brexit.’

The Government says its research shows children are exposed to more than 15 billion adverts for products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) online every year.

They say evidence shows exposure to HFSS advertising can affect what children eat and when they eat, both in the short term by increasing the amount of food children eat immediately after being exposed to an advert, and by shaping longer-term food preferences from a young age. 

But advertising campaigners said if the ‘policy of an outright ban goes ahead’, it would deal a ‘huge blow’ to a sector already dealing with the impact of Covid-19.

In a joint statement, the leaders of the Advertising Association, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the Internet Advertising Bureau UK said: ‘Obesity is rightly recognised by the public and by health experts as a complex problem and one for which there is no single answer.

‘But the proposal to completely outlaw online advertising of certain food and drink is a severe and disproportionate measure that goes far beyond the Government’s objective of protecting children.’

The organisations called the move ‘heavy-handed’ and urged ministers to engage with the industry.

Campaigners, such as the World Cancer Research Fund, pushed to get junk food adverts completely banned before 9pm to cut childhood obesity, a previously announced measure

The statement added: ‘This consultation has landed just as we have entered another period of lockdown, with all the heightened uncertainty this creates for people and businesses right across the country.’

They continued: ‘To borrow the Prime Minister’s language, this is not an ‘oven ready’ policy; it is not even half-baked.

‘But it does have all the ingredients of a kick in the teeth for our industry from a Government which we believed was interested in prioritising economic growth alongside targeted interventions to support health and wellbeing.’

The new consultation, which will run for six weeks, will gather views from the public and industry stakeholders to understand the impact and challenges of introducing a total ban on the advertising of these products online, to help people live healthier lives and tackle childhood obesity.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘I am determined to help parents, children and families in the UK make healthier choices about what they eat.

‘We know as children spend more time online, parents want to be reassured they are not being exposed to adverts promoting unhealthy foods, which can affect eating habits for life.

‘This will be a world-leading measure to tackle the obesity challenges we face now but it will also address a problem that will only become more prominent in the future.’ 

The Government says that further advertising restrictions are widely supported by the public, with polling from 2019 showing that 72% of public support a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts during popular family TV shows and that 70% support a 9pm watershed online.

Health secretary Matt Hancock says he’s determined to help families make healthier choices

It follows a government announcement in July that it would be banning HFSS ads on TV during the watershed period of the day to restrict their exposure to children, but this has not yet come into force. 

It’s thought that watching unhealthy food advertising increases the calories children eat by triggering cravings and subconsciously directing them to the larder.

In England, one in five children aged between four to five years and one in three children aged 10 to 11 years are overweight or obese. 

Children with obesity are five times more likely to have obesity as an adult and are at increased risk of premature death and developing a range of diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.    

In July, Boris Johnson urged the nation to follow his lead after he decided to lose weight following his Covid-19 battle which saw him admit he was ‘too fat’ when he was hospitalised with the virus.

Mr Johnson revealed that since his recovery from the deadly illness he has focused on getting fitter by going on morning runs with his dog Dilyn.

He is urging the nation to follow his lead, insisting the Government’s ‘better health strategy’ will help people to ‘bring their weight down’ and better protect the NHS.

His comments came as he launched the Government’s new anti-obesity strategy which detailed the end of confectionery displays at store checkouts and the ban on adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt on TV before 9pm.

The measures are yet to be finalised but could see deals such as ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy foods also banned, while alcoholic drinks could soon have to list their calorie content.

Placing sugary and fatty items in prominent locations in stores will be stopped, including at checkouts and entrances, and online.

Instead, shops will be encouraged to promote healthier choices and offer more discounts on healthy food such as fruit and vegetables. 

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