Leading Health Organisations Outraged at ‘Attack on Health’ Delay to Junk Food Advertising Ban
The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), representing health charities, medical organisations, health professionals and thousands of patients, is outraged that the Prime Minister is abandoning children’s health by delaying the Government’s 9pm watershed ban on TV and online junk food advertising, until October 2025.
The food industry had since the announcement of the obesity strategy in May 2020 to prepare for the incoming legislation[i]. During this time, the number of children living with obesity has continued to rise and now stands at 1 in 10 in reception class – rising to a quarter of children in Year 6, with those from a more deprived background being twice as likely to be living with overweight or obesity[ii].
The 9pm watershed ban on TV and online junk food advertising was the central pillar of the Government’s obesity strategy, which would have saved an estimated £76 billion over the next 25 years if implemented in full, according to research commissioned by Impact on Urban Health and produced by the Behavioural Insights Team and Nesta[iii]. Government figures estimate that its proposed obesity prevention policies will substantially improve diets[iv], including for people on lower incomes, and continuing to delay obesity prevention will make inequalities worse.
The OHA agrees it is also imperative that businesses are profitable in a way that doesn’t place greater burdens on the state by increasing poor health outcomes. For example, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy is an extremely successful policy that reduced the amount of sugar in soft drinks by 30%[v], while sales continued to increase (up 5.7% in 2021[vi]).
The Government knows this policy will work. As recently as September, the Chancellor joined 25 other former health ministers to call for these policies not to be delayed[vii]. The Obesity Health Alliance urges the government to reconsider, and shorten the delay by a year, to protect child health.
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.
“Children currently in Reception class will now have to face a devastating health trajectory, as efforts to improve their future health have been fatally undermined. A new study published yesterday in the BMJ shows that cases of type 2 diabetes in young adults have risen faster in the UK than anywhere else in the world[viii]. 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.
“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.”
Chris Askew is Chief Executive of Diabetes UK. He said: “It’s disgraceful that the Government will be delaying the restrictions on junk food advertising until 2025. 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.
“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.
“Delaying action will disproportionately impact the lowest income households, who have less access to healthy food and are targeted by a greater amount of advertising of 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.”
Professor David Strain, chair of the BMA’s board of science, said: “Once again the government does not appear to be up to addressing the crisis of ill-health afflicting our country. Delaying yet another policy that could help improve the diets and health of our nation’s young people 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. 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.
“The results of a decade of neglect of the population’s health are plain to see with an overburdened NHS and a declining life expectancy. Kicking another policy that could help into the long grass just shows that this government has sadly learned nothing in that time.”
Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said: “If the UK Government is serious about halving childhood obesity and improving cancer outcomes, it cannot keep kicking the can down the road. The Government must reverse its decision and implement these restrictions within the coming year.
“These popular and evidence-based measures will help prevent thousands of children and young people from developing obesity, which poses a major threat to their lifelong health, including increasing their risk of cancer later in life. The Government’s own figures show that a 9pm watershed for TV adverts of junk food and restrictions on paid online advertising could reduce the number of children with obesity by more than 20,000.”
Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive at the British Heart Foundation, said: “This unnecessary delay to measures which promise to protect children from being targeted by junk food adverts is desperately disappointing. Sadly, children who live with obesity are more likely to have obesity as an adult, increasing their chances of heart disease in later life.
“A 9pm watershed and online restrictions on advertising of unhealthy foods are vital parts of the wide-ranging strategy we need to drive down obesity rates. There is no evidence to support this extreme delay, and the Government must explain where the benefit lies in this damaging backwards step.
“The health and wealth of the country are inextricably linked, and Government inaction on obesity risks damaging our health and the economy in the coming years. This decision must be urgently reconsidered.”
Ben Reynolds, Deputy Chief Executive, Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, commented: “If this Government is serious about halving child obesity it makes no sense to more than double the delay to this flagship policy to help deliver that. There is no justification for doing this other than appeasing the advertising and food industry and a handful of backbench lobbyists. It should be easy for everyone to eat healthily, especially children. But it isn’t. And in this cost-of-living crisis, it is not right that companies will continue to spend millions of pounds advertising a constant stream of unhealthy food, when what people really need is more affordable, healthy food and drinks.”
Dev Sharma, a 17 year-old campaigner at Bite Back 2030, said: “This is a huge betrayal of the promises the Government made to young people, to protect our health. I am bombarded by junk food ads on a daily basis; they’re constantly popping up when I’m gaming, watching videos online and messaging my friends. It’s overwhelming for young people like me.
“I started raising my voice for children’s health when I was 14 years old, but this massive let down means I’ll be well into my adult life before action is taken. Once again, it’s our health which is suffering as a result of the Government’s appalling decisions.”
Professor Rachel Batterham, Royal College of Physicians (RCP) special adviser on obesity, said: “The RCP is dismayed that the government has once again chosen to delay strategies to protect children and young people from developing obesity, at a time when pressures on our health service are at an all-time high.
“Junk food advertising is precisely the kind of aggressive marketing that has led to 1 in 5 children leaving primary school with obesity.
“Delaying the 9pm watershed for advertising unhealthy foods will leave our children vulnerable to developing long-term unhealthy eating habits.”
Professor Kevin Fenton, President of the Faculty of Public Health said: “Unhealthy diets create poor health and add to the extremely unfair disparity in health we see in our country – and it starts with our children. The evidence is clear that children are exceptionally vulnerable to advertising. Even short-term exposure to junk food advertising results in children increasing their food consumption. The government cannot claim to care about the health of our children if they move ahead with this delay.”
Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt said: “This news is hugely disappointing and goes against all the overwhelming evidence and public support in favour of it. The only people to benefit from this baseless delay are the multinational food companies who are used to making huge profits from their unhealthy products and do not have a vested interest in the nation’s health.
This whole saga has been a huge waste of tax payer’s money and will now put more children at risk – in fact, this policy could reduce the number of children living with obesity by 20,000 over a few years. This has been orchestrated by a government which clearly has no intention of levelling up or committing to its promises in protecting the nation’s health from the devastating effects of unhealthy diets high in saturated fat, salt and sugar. This is the biggest cause of death and disability globally and costs the UK more than £100 billion (combined) annually.”
[iii] Nesta: Innovation agency for social good. https://www.bi.team/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Putting-health-in-the-spotlight_-quantifying-the-impact-of-obesity-prevention-policies-in-the-UK.pdf
[vi] [NielsenIQ 52 w/e 7 September 2019]