Web ads for junk food could be banned under UK government plans

Junk food adverts could be banned entirely online, after the government’s decision to bar any unhealthy food advertising before 9pm online or on television, as part of its strategy to tackle the “time bomb” of obesity.

The measures have been cautiously welcomed though some health experts are concerned they place too much emphasis on individual responsibility for obesity, rather than addressing health inequalities.

The government has said it will ban junk food adverts before 9pm and launch a short consultation on whether that should be extended to a blanket ban on adverts for sweets and fast food online.

Other measures include a ban on chocolates, crisps and sweets at the checkout and displaying calories on menus in restaurants and pubs, including for alcoholic drinks, which are estimated to account for nearly 10% of the calorie intake of those who drink.

Prof Andrew Goddard, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the approach had not been as all-encompassing as some medics had hoped for, saying it had not taken fully into account how obesity was “the result of biological, genetic and social factors” and not just personal choice.

“There is a risk that we once again fall into the trap of mainly focusing on individual responsibility,” he said. “We’ve been down this path before and it doesn’t work. We know the key to success in addressing obesity and other health inequalities lies in shared responsibility between individuals and the state.”

The decision to ban junk food adverts has been highlighted as a significant success for obesity campaigners. Unveiling the new package of measures, Boris Johnson and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, underlined how tackling obesity was a new front in the fight against coronavirus, warning that excess weight put victims at risk of more severe illness and death.

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The new measures will include a public information drive aimed at improving the country’s health after the pandemic. Almost two thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese, as well as one in three primary school age children.

Launching the strategy, the government called obesity “a time bomb” and said the urgency of tackling the issue had been underlined by the evidence of an increased risk from coronavirus. 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.

To promote the lauch, No 10 released a photograph of the prime minister, who says he has lost a stone since he was hospitalised with Covid-19, walking his dog, Dilyn, in the grounds of Chequers.

According to analysis from Cancer Research UK, almost half of all food adverts shown on ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One were for products high in fat, sugar and salt, rising to almost 60% between 6pm and 9pm when they are most likely to be viewed by children.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said endless adverts for junk food provoked cravings and normalised bad diets, “which is why we have been campaigning relentlessly for a TV watershed, online restrictions and multi-buy ban”.

Caroline Cerny from the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 organisations, called it a “landmark move” and said it was “taking the spotlight firmly off junk food and ensuring only healthier foods can be promoted on TV, online and in our shops as well as providing more support to help people manage their weight”.

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Food products on promotion will also be targeted after research showed 43% of food and drinks placed strategically by checkouts were sugary. Discounts on high-fat and sugar items will be discouraged in favour of discounts on fruit and vegetables.

Some campaigners have suggested that the government should also have ordered a reformulation of highly calorific products. Johnson has long been a sceptic of the sugar tax, singling out the soft drinks levy as a “sin tax” during his leadership campaign. Under Theresa May, Hancock had drawn up plans for a “milkshake tax” targeting surgary milk drinks aimed mainly at children.

Katharine Jenner, the campaign director at Action on Sugar called it a “missed opportunity that mandatory targets for reformulation ie removing unnecessary calories, sugar and salt from products have been excluded from Boris [Johnson]’s announcement along with their proper enforcement. Furthermore, it’s absurd that the highly successful soft drinks levy has not been extended to other unhealthy sugar foods and drinks.”

Calorie labelling will apply to chains for the most part, as well as any other cafe or takeaway with more than 250 employees. Hancock said: “When you’re shopping for your family or out with friends, it’s only fair that you are given the right information about the food you’re eating to help people to make good decisions.” Hancock described supermarket promotions as “unhelpful influences”.

NHS services will also be expanded to help Britons lose weight, including doctors being incentivised to tell patients they are overweight and to prescribe exercise.

Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said the plans were ambitious because the need for action was “the clearest it has ever been”.

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She said: “The main reason we put on weight is because of what we eat and drink, but being more active is important too. Making healthier choices easier and fairer for everyone, and ensuring the right support is there for those who need it, is critical in tackling obesity.”

PHE pointed to research showing that adults typically consumed 200-300 extra calories a day above recommended daily guidelines.

Announcing the strategy, Johnson said: “Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier. If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”

Johnson had promised in his leadership campaign he would put an end to the state “nannying or bossying”. But the prime minister has suggested his own experience in intensive care with coronavirus had been one of the main reasons for his adopting a more interventionist approach regarding obesity.


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