UK limits junk food advertising to tackle childhood obesity

Updated: Jul 1

The UK government will bring in an evening watershed for junk food ads in a move to tackle obesity problem. The move will ban television and on-demand channels advertising food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9:00pm. The National Health Service (NHS) estimates that some 10 percent of four- and five-year-olds have obesity, a figure that climbs to 20.2 percent for those aged 10 and 11, or one in five. It adds that one in four adults have obesity, with cheap, high-calorie foods blamed in part. There will be some exceptions for foods that fall in these categories but are relatively unprocessed and healthy - such as marmite or honey - and for small and medium-sized food businesses.

From the end of next year, television and on-demand channels will not be allowed to advertise food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9:00 pm. An analysis of advertising from 2019 that found that almost 60 percent of ads on the main commercial TV channels between 6:00pm and 9:00pm were for foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

The new rules do not ban all junk food promotion online, despite calls for this from campaigners. Junk food companies will be able to put out content that is not paid-for, such as on their brands' social media pages and blogs.

This proposals are supported by recent evidence presented to the Government by the Warwick Obesity Network, an interdisciplinary team of academics and clinicians at the University of Warwick, which found that exposure to unhealthy food and drink advertisements contributes towards childhood obesity by promoting the short-term desire to consume energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. However, this does not address other forms of advertising such as billboards, supermarket campaigns, appealing characters on product packages and games.

"I remain very concerned about children's exposure to unhealthy food advertisements," said Dr Petra Hanson, a clinical researcher at Warwick Medical School, and a co-author of the review. "Though the UK was the first country to restrict the advertising of unhealthy food products around children's TV programs, children have continued to be exposed to unhealthy adverts during other programs. Young adults will continue to be exposed to unhealthy food advertisements after 9pm—and we know that eating habits developed in early life often persist into adulthood."

A recent review of the literature on the issue of food advertising and obesity for a related Government consultation led the Warwick Obesity Network to conclude that the evidence strongly supports the Government imposing a complete ban on TV and online advertising of products that contain high levels of fat, sugar and salt.

"Parents and children are being nudged, tricked and cheated into consuming 'foods' that are high in sugar, fat and salt by an industry that does not have their best interests in mind and that commands vastly greater power and resources than they do,” said Dr Thijs van Rens, Associate Professor of Economics.

"Protecting them against these pressures of their environment is simply common sense to protect the lives, health, productivity and wellbeing of future generations.”

Hanson also said that marketing toward vulnerable children is a growing trend, aided in part by new technologies and devices: "Online advertising has become increasingly prevalent, with marketers directly targeting children via 'advergames," which encourage children to win points by placing branded food item in the mouth of popular children's characters. These games are notoriously difficult for the government to regulate as it is not always possible to prove they are a paid for advertisements."

Dr Paul Coleman, a public health registrar at Warwick Medical School and a co-author of the review, highlighted that the children most vulnerable to this onslaught of advertising are those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

"Research has shown that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds had greater exposure than their higher-income peers from TV and online games, making them more susceptible to the impacts of unhealthy food advertisements. These children are also more vulnerable because they are likely to live in neighbourhoods with worse access to healthy food outlets, an abundance of fast-food takeaways, and a greater prevalence of outdoor food advertisements."

He added that addressing unhealthy food environments needed to be done in parallel with other measures: "The government must focus on other causes of poor diet and obesity. Tackling these issues will require measures, such as promoting physical activity, and addressing social drivers of food insecurity. It will also mean making sure that children have an adequate supply of healthy food, even if they live in households that do not have the financial means to purchase such foods."