Childhood obesity: follow-up Contents


Our recommendations

57.Public Health England’s evidence review recommended the following tightening of controls on advertising and marketing to children:

Reducing exposure to marketing by setting broader and deeper controls on advertising of high sugar foods and drinks to children. This could be achieved through a range of specific actions including:

Our report endorsed Public Health England’s proposals.77

58.The Government’s response to our report said

The Government recognises that advertising of less healthy products leads to their increased consumption and we know marketing in all forms affects food preference and choice. Although evidence regarding the extent of increased consumption by children as a result of advertising and the knock-on effect on obesity levels is mixed. We have noted Public Health England’s assessment of evidence on the impact of marketing to children as set out in its report Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action.

Current restrictions on advertising in the UK are amongst the toughest in the world. There is a total ban on the advertising of high in fat, sugars and salt (HFSS) food during children’s television programmes on dedicated children’s broadcast channels and in programmes “of particular appeal” to children under the age of 16. The ban also contains restrictions on advertising content, for example promotional offers may not be used in HFSS food TV adverts targeted at pre-school or primary school aged children.

In addition, we welcome the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) review of non-broadcast advertising to introduce new rules on advertising to children.

However, as already noted above, the childhood obesity plan itself contains no reference to advertising.78

Action by the Committees on Advertising Practice

59.On 8 December 2016, following a public consultation, the Committee of Advertising Practice79 announced new rules banning the advertising of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) food and drink products in children’s media. The rules, which will come into effect on 1 July 2017, will apply across all non-broadcast media including in print, cinema and online and in social media. In summary, when these new rules come into effect:

Childhood obesity plan: updating the nutrient profile model

60.Meanwhile, the Government’s childhood obesity plan announced that Public Health England would work with academics, industry, health non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders to review the nutrient profile model to ensure it reflects the latest government dietary guidelines.

Response from stakeholders

61.Of the five possible actions which Public Health England proposed (see para 53 above), and which we endorsed, only three have thus been implemented. Amongst those sending in written submissions ahead of this follow-up session, the Association of Directors of Public Health,81 the British Medical Association,82 Cancer Research UK,83 the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health,84 the Children’s Food Trust85 and the Children’s Food Campaign86 all express disappointment that further action has not been taken on advertising and marketing of unhealthy food and drink. The Children’s Food Trust’s submission summarises the concern:

Whilst we note the recent—very welcome—moves by the Committee for Advertising Practice to bring rules for print, online and cinema advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt into line with those for TV, the requirements still fall short of what we and many other campaigners had called for to protect children’s health.

Advertising of junk food will still be allowed at the cinema, online, in print or at events if less than one quarter of the media’s audience is judged to be under the age of 16. Children are often exposed to junk food ads during early-evening family TV because programmes aren’t counted as ‘children’s TV’ and we feel the Committee on Advertising Practice has missed an opportunity to lead the way on closing this sort of loophole.

We’re also concerned that advertisers will still be allowed to use characters and celebrities popular with children to promote products which while not high in fat, sugar or salt, may still not support a healthy diet for children, and that it appears child-friendly characters created specially for brands will still be allowed in the advertising of junk foods.87

62.A number of submissions called for implementation of our, and Public Health England’s, recommendation to restrict all advertising of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods and drinks to after the 9pm watershed. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health told us that “previous research by Ofcom showed that [a ban on the advertising of HFSS food and drink before the 9pm watershed] would reduce the amount of HFSS adverts seen by children by 82 per cent compared to just 37 per cent for the current regulations.”88

Evidence from the Committees on Advertising Practice

63.We invited a representative of the Committees on Advertising Practice to give evidence to us on the measures which it had—and those which it had not—taken to curb advertising of unhealthy food and drink to children. Our questioning focussed particularly on the point that while the existing and new restrictions would apply to media where children make up over 25% of the audience, they do not (and will not) apply in cases where the media concerned reach a very large absolute number of children, but where overall audience numbers mean that the proportion of the audience which they represent is below 25%. The most obvious example is Saturday night early-evening television programming.

64.Shahriar Coupal, Director of the Committees of Advertising Practice, relied on three main arguments in defending the Committees’ decision not to implement Public Health England’s proposals:

To back up these arguments, he referred mainly to research on TV advertising of products high in fat, salt and sugar conducted by Ofcom between 2004 and 2007.89

65.On the public health benefits, he said

Ofcom found from its research that there was only a modest direct influence on children’s food preferences arising from TV advertising. Therefore, if one were to eliminate all HFSS advertising from the schedule, one would be eliminating only a modest direct influence on their preferences. Clearly, it was unwarranted to have such a level of restriction, and that was why it concluded overall that a certain restriction on children’s programming was appropriate.90

Later, he expanded a little on that point:

The evidence suggests that [advertising] has a modest impact on children’s food preferences and some link with children’s diets, but it falls well short of establishing a link with obesity. The calculation that seeing ads equals obesity is simply not proven. The multiple and complex factors that cause obesity—parental policy, schools policies, public understanding of nutrition and so on—are perhaps much more in the dock than advertising.91

66.On the cost of regulation, he said

Ofcom calculated that a 9 pm restriction would lead to a loss of broadcast revenue to the tune of £211 million net. Clearly, that has consequences for UK original programming, including children’s programming [ … ] Restrictions beyond those [Ofcom] proposed around children’s programmes would not be merited on the basis that public health outcomes from further restrictions were uncertain and the loss of revenue to broadcasters was too great, with a potential reduction in UK-originated programming, including children’s programming.92

67.Responding to questioning about the proposal to restrict HFSS advertising to after the 9pm watershed, he argued

Ofcom was [ … ] concerned about the blunt instrument of a 9 pm watershed. As you may know, Ofcom licenses 1,200 channels, the vast majority of which do not have any child audience, or a negligible child audience, and to impose a 9 pm restriction on those would be simply unwarranted. [ … ] Ofcom was very concerned that any regulation should not have any unwarranted intrusion into adult viewing time. That would also be our concern in relation to non-broadcast advertising.93

Advertising: conclusion

68.We welcome the steps which the Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) has introduced following its consultation to restrict advertising of HFSS food and drink in non-broadcast media, but we consider that the advertising regulators could—and should—go further. The research on which Mr Coupal relied to defend the regulators’ failure to take firmer action to restrict the advertising of junk food dates back to 2007. Since then, our understanding of the scale and the urgency of the problem of childhood obesity has improved hugely. Notwithstanding the CAP’s welcome recent recognition of the necessity of extending to non-broadcast media the restrictions which currently apply to broadcast media, it appears that the advertising regulators have not sufficiently woken up to the nature of the challenge we face. We are particularly unconvinced by the argument that restrictions which would affect audiences which contain large numbers of children, but where overall audience numbers mean that the proportion of the audience which they represent is below 25%, would represent an unwarranted intrusion into adult viewing time. As we pointed out in questioning, it would be no bad thing in tackling obesity if adults were exposed to less advertising of unhealthy food.94 More importantly, though, the scale and consequences of childhood obesity require brave and bold action.

69.Whilst we welcome the changes introduced by the Committee on Advertising Practice, we urge a re-examination of the case for further restrictions on advertising of high fat, salt and sugar food and drink in the light of the most recent research not only on the effect of such advertising, but on the scale and consequences of childhood obesity. We intend to return to this subject following publication of the first set of monitoring data in March 2018.

78 Para 8, fifth bullet point.

79 The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) write and maintain the UK Advertising Codes, which are administered by the Advertising Standards Authority. They also offer the industry authoritative advice and guidance on how to create campaigns that comply with the rules. There are two Committees: the Committee of Advertising Practice, which writes the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code), and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice, which writes the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising.

89 Qq 12–30.

90 Q14

91 Q30

92 Q13, Q29

93 Q13, Q23

94 Q23

23 March 2017