8 Jun 2007 : Column 1359

House of Lords

Friday, 8 June 2007.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Television Advertising (Food) Bill [HL]

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

It is an honour and a pleasure to introduce this Bill to your Lordships’ House. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Morgan of Drefelin, whose Bill this was before she joined the Government Front Bench as a Whip at Christmas. We were both wondering whether she might find herself having to deal with her former Bill from her new position; and I think we are both relieved to find that this is not the case.

I am immensely flattered that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has chosen to make his maiden speech during this debate. He is without doubt the expert, and he is largely responsible for producing the science and information that has allowed this issue to come to the top of the public policy agenda. I, for one, am looking forward to his contribution to the debate, and I welcome him to life in your Lordships’ House.

I place on record my gratitude to Sustain and to the Children’s Food Campaign for their support and briefing, not just to me but to many noble Lords who have chosen to participate in this debate, particularly those who are supporting the Bill.

One of the reasons why I was convinced that this was an important and vital cause to support was the range and impressiveness of the support from more than 300 organisations and 12,000 members of the public, some of them distinguished scientists and chefs, such as Sophie Grigson, who joined me at a meeting with children and parents before today’s debate. Chefs such as Raymond Blanc, Prue Leith, Antony Worrall Thompson, and parents like me, are committed to improving the diet and health of the UK’s children and young people.

The British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Which?, the Children’s Commissioner, the Consumers’ Association, Diabetes UK, the British Medical Association and many other organisations have written to give me their support. More than 100 Members of your Lordships’ House have written to me offering support, and many apologised for not being here today. We might miss them, but in terms of the length of the debate, we might be relieved that they could not all be here to speak. I am delighted and grateful for their response, as I am to noble Lords who have chosen to be here today to participate in the Second Reading debate, even if they disagree with me.

Noble Lords might wish to know that Early Day Motion 404 in the other place has now gathered 233 signatures from across the parties in support of the proposals in the Bill. The Bill is in two parts. It will end television advertising for high in fat, salt and sugar—HFSS—food and drink before 9 pm, it will restrict the advertising of food “ranges” with HFSS items in them before 9 pm and finally it seeks to prevent the sponsorship of pre-watershed programmes by HFSS products.

The Bill seeks to do that by defining a watershed that covers most of the time when children might be watching television, but it is not limited to what are commonly known as “children’s viewing times”. It seeks to find a form of words that would cover not only foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, but that will deal with the manufacturers and producers of brands of those foods, hence the use of the phrase “range of foods” in Clause 1(4). Clause 2 seeks to use the classification and models that are already in existence to classify foods, particularly because those are the nutritional classifications that have been used by Ofcom in its deliberations about the restrictions on advertising to children.

Why is this Bill necessary now, when, as I am sure the Minister will tell us later in the debate, the Ofcom-recommended restrictions are only just being introduced? It is no exaggeration to say that there is a crisis in children’s diets. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that 92 per cent of children consume more saturated fat than is recommended; 86 per cent consume too much sugar; 72 per cent consume too much salt; and 96 per cent do not get enough fruit and vegetables. The Chief Medical Officer has compared the crisis in children’s diets to a health “time bomb” that must be defused.

It is to our shame that the UK now has the highest rate of obesity in Europe, and childhood obesity is rising at an alarming rate. One in three children is now overweight or obese. Obesity in children under 11 has risen by over 40 per cent in 10 years. If that trend continues, half of children will be obese or overweight by 2020. The Government have set themselves a target to halt the rise in obesity by 2010. The Bill points to the fact that that will not be achieved unless urgent measures are taken.

The consequences of childhood obesity are now clear. Incidences of high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and even clogged arteries in children are rising. Obesity in childhood is likely to develop into obesity in adulthood, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes or cancer. Ten years ago, type 2 diabetes in UK children was reported as an anomaly; today, there are up to 1,000 known cases, all of which can be directly attributed to an increasingly poor diet and lack of physical activity. The prevalence in children could be over 50 per cent by 2020 if the current trend continues.

The psychological impact of obesity can be as damaging as the physical for many children. Being overweight or obese is associated with increased levels of distress, disadvantage and psychological problems. Alongside the problems associated with obesity, junk food diets are causing other health problems. I have mentioned type 2 diabetes, but junk food diets also have significant effects on children's behaviour, concentration, learning ability and mood. Many noble Lords who are parents will know about the sugar high and spike that our children experience. I have one daughter, and we used to say that she climbed the walls if she got the wrong kind of sugar and additives in the sweets that she had access to from time to time, despite my best efforts. Children with diets lacking in essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids tend to perform worse academically, cannot concentrate and can be more aggressive.

A great deal of this will be familiar to noble Lords, Ofcom and the Government. All that information helped to inform Ofcom in its deliberations last year when it was deciding the precise recommendations about the restrictions on advertising of certain foods. I pay tribute to the thorough way that it set out to define the scale of the problem, although I note that Ofcom was asked to undertake that task in December 2003 by the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell. The four years that it has taken to get to this point is no doubt due to the comprehensive nature of the analysis Ofcom undertook of the available scientific and audience data to assess the extent to which television advertising influenced children's food preferences.

I also pay tribute to the Food Standards Agency for providing us with nutrient profiling which defines food and drink products rated as high in fat, salt and sugar, about which there will no doubt be more from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I am reassured that Ofcom will continue to look to the FSA to ensure that the nutrient profiling scheme remains in line with scientific thinking as it evolves.

My contention, and I think that of many others today, is that the conclusion that Ofcom came to from its deliberations and the resulting proposals are inadequate given the scale and urgency of this problem. We cannot wait another year for the proposals to be enacted, then another two or three years to find out that they are inadequate, and then perhaps even more years to find a firmer remedy. The UK’s children do not have that time to wait, and deserve better. This Bill therefore lays down a challenge to Ofcom and the Government to get serious with the issue. It does so with a huge amount of public support. If Ofcom and the Government believe their own research by their own experts, why are they not prepared to take the steps necessary to have a real impact?

The Bill is not the silver bullet that will solve overnight the problems of child obesity, diet and lack of exercise. Of course, it is not up to the House of Lords to substitute for parents and their responsibilities. The most important people in this equation are parents and families, and then there are teachers and other carers, youth workers, doctors and so on, all of whom have important jobs in educating and persuading children and young people to eat sensibly and well. But all the good work of schools and the efforts of parents are being undermined by the torrent of advertising for less healthy food. The average child sees 18,000 adverts a year.

A recent British Heart Foundation survey found that 68 per cent of parents were in favour of pre-9 pm restrictions on junk food advertising, while only 7 per cent were against them. Which? found in a 2006 survey that 79 per cent of parents believe that unhealthy foods should not be advertised when children are most likely to watch television. Ofcom found in 2004 that 81 per cent of parents and carers wanted some form of regulation of the advertising of junk food products, while just 11 per cent wanted no change. Some 48 per cent supported a ban on junk food advertising before 9 pm, and 24 per cent opposed it.

Professor Hastings, in his distinguished review published in 2003 on the impact of broadcast food and drink promotion on children's eating behaviour, found not only that there was a substantial amount of food advertising for children, but that food promotion affects children's preferences and what they decide to buy and eat. Those findings were further endorsed by additional research that Ofcom carried out before it initiated its 2006 consultation and research published in the Lancet.

It is therefore clear not only that children are being subjected to considerable high fat, salt and sugar food TV advertising, but that this in turn affects their eating habits. Some 80 per cent of the junk food advertising that children are subjected to is on television. The Hastings review on the effect of television advertising demonstrated that this has a significant influence on not only their preferences, but their purchasing behaviour—and the pressure that they put on their parents and family in their purchasing behaviour, and on their friends through peer group pressure.

The problem is that Ofcom's recommendations for restrictions on junk food advertising do not properly protect children from it and contain a significant number of loopholes. Ofcom's proposals effectively prevent the advertising of junk food only during the hours of children's television, and 71 per cent of television watched by children falls outside those hours, so we have a serious problem. Research by Which? found that none of the 26 commercial television programmes watched by most children was covered by Ofcom's proposed regulations. These are programmes such as “Coronation Street” and “Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway”, which has 11 million viewers. They are not covered by the Ofcom regulations. It is estimated that imposing a watershed at 9 pm could save the nation up a billion pounds a year, at a cost to the industry of only £150 million a year—less than half of ITV’s latest dividend to shareholders. The Bill will encourage TV advertising for healthier products. This may well encourage children to eat healthier foods.

Ofcom’s failure to place any restrictions on brand advertising allowed a significant loophole for food companies producing products that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). Its recommendations do not apply to brand advertising where no products are shown. For example, you could advertise the golden arches of McDonald's, which are recognised even by a large number of three year-olds, without showing a hamburger. Thereby, companies have the freedom to promote their products via their brands. Even Ofcom admitted that:

It is up to the Government to get Ofcom out of this dilemma. Ofcom probably also believes that it is up to the Government and this Parliament to make sure that the watchdog can take the necessary steps to end such brand advertising. There is every reason to expect that loopholes in HFSS advertising regulation will be exploited by food and drink companies and their advertising agencies, leading to continued marketing pressure on children from companies promoting fast food, snacks, confectionery and soft drinks.

This Bill tackles the issue of brand advertising by preventing advertising for any range of food that includes HFSS items, although advertising of any non-HFSS product within that range is still allowed. This will mean that much brand advertising is controlled, without harming advertising for healthier products.

In conclusion, I urge the Government to follow the logic of their own research, the logic of their stated public aims, and the views of many respected scientists, the medical profession, teachers and the vast majority of parents and families who support the Bill. I am aware that there would be an impact on profits in the commercial television world. Indeed, one television channel wrote to me to tell me of the detrimental effect that my proposals would have on its ability to make children’s programmes. I do not deny that there would be such an effect, although, like the doom mongers who opposed the ban on cigarette advertising and indeed smoking in public places, it is probably exaggerated. However, there is a greater good here that cannot be denied.

I have several reasons to be optimistic that we will succeed. Apart from the fact, as my children and their friends say, that it is a bit of a no-brainer, in an interview on GMTV on 25 October 2006, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, gave his support for pre-9 pm watershed restrictions on junk food advertising to children, stating:

I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Thornton.)

11.23 am

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as chief executive of the Advertising Association. If a ban on the advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt solved the problem of obesity in Britain, how simple life would be. Unfortunately, life is not that simple and I am afraid that this Bill is a classic case of a quick-fix solution to a complex problem.

Advertising is an easy target, but advertising bans have unintended consequences and will not tackle the root causes of the problem of obesity. Obesity is a hugely important and multi-faceted social issue that must be taken seriously. The increase in obesity can be attributed to a complex range of inter-relating causal factors, including changes in lifestyle and diet, and social, environmental and cultural factors. Both Ofcom and the Food Standards Agency have acknowledged this.

Recommendations on advertising comprised only three of the 91 recommendations in the Government’s 2004 Choosing Health White Paper. One might well ask what happened to the other 88, especially given the huge amount of activity and change that has taken place in the reformulation of food and marketing to children. Not only would a watershed be damaging and disproportionate, but it is not evidence-based; it is certainly not rational to introduce yet more changes when the current ones are only just being phased in.

The pressure groups behind this Bill advocate a 9 pm watershed on the grounds that it will significantly reduce exposure of food advertising to children up to 15 years of age. This view has evolved from Ofcom’s 2004 research, which showed that 70 per cent of children’s viewing is outside children’s airtime. In fact, this is an oversimplification of the figures and children’s exposure to adult viewing is considerably less.

Ofcom was asked in 2004 to research the impact of television advertising of food and drink to children and to consider proposals on tightening the rules on television advertising. Its comprehensive and evidence-based report concluded that food advertising had “modest direct effect”—around only 2 per cent—on children’s food choices. It also said that indirect effects were likely to be larger but that there was insufficient evidence to quantify the indirect effect of TV advertising on children’s food preferences, consumption and behaviour, by comparison with other relevant factors such as exercise, trends in family eating habits, school policy and food labelling.

Ofcom decided that there was a case for strengthening advertising rules but concluded that a total ban on pre-watershed television advertising of food and drinks to children would be neither proportionate nor, in isolation, effective. Indeed, it recognised that this “nuclear option” would not be sufficiently targeted and would be disproportionate. Its chief executive, Ed Richards, confirmed that it would reduce broadcaster revenues by a sum greater than the entire commercial TV industry’s combined expenditure on all children’s programming and national news coverage and that it would cut,

It is often forgotten that TV food advertising expenditure has been declining since the beginning of this decade, yet obesity in younger children continues to rise. The evidence is just not there to support the restrictions that this Bill would impose. Instead, it is time for government and politicians to face up to uncomfortable truths. In the United States, the attention on obesity is rightly focused, by inspirational organisations such as the Johnson and Johnson Foundation, on the balance between “energy in”, or food intake, and “energy out”, or exercise, of children. I suggest that the FSA and the Government would do well to look at what Johnson and Johnson is doing on this.

Politicians in this country must face up to the fact that ideological posturing by both left and right has harmed children. Doctrinaire positions on the selling of playing fields and the banning of team sports in schools have failed a generation of children. Only this week we heard from the Children’s Society that parents are afraid to let their children go out and play by themselves and explore and grow as individuals. On Wednesday morning we heard two health professors, Professor Wardle and Professor Fox, on Radio 4’s “Today” programme, explain that the increase in obesity is due to a chronic imbalance of eating and exercise, with a lack of healthier food at lower prices and the microwave contributing to an overweight nation. Advertising is an easy target when politicians do not want to blame either themselves or the lack of responsibility exercised by their constituents. Yet if we really want to tackle the root causes of obesity, this is where we should be looking.

Frankly, the bizarre posturing of consumerist groups on this issue is as damaging as it is perplexing. Generating a bandwagon of C-list celebrities looking for attention and of contenders for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, as has been attempted in support of this Bill, is not serious politics. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth and raises the serious question of why these self-styled consumerist groups behind the Bill are not campaigning on more serious problems and the root causes of obesity.

It is worth noting that the Bill is being promoted by the pressure group Sustain, which is funded by farming groups, such as the National Farmers’ Union, and by Baby Milk Action and other related organisations. I wonder how those unbelievably hard-pressed dairy and pig farmers would feel if they realised that their produce—cream, butter, cheese and sausages—is all already classed as junk food according to the FSA nutrient profiling. Indeed mothers’ milk, if it could be advertised, would be banned as well. Farmers are effectively funding an organisation, Sustain, which we can only deduce is happy to destroy them.

At a time when we habitually read of killings of children by other children and of drug, substance and physical abuse, why is there such a disproportionate and hysterical agenda against advertising being conducted by groups that claim to campaign for the common good?

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of all this was to watch the British Medical Association leap on this bandwagon. It is in such a powerful position to make a real difference and it should be asking itself what thousands of GPs are doing to help obese patients. Instead, its only excuse for posturing on this issue is to cite the very dubious research—indeed, it is not really research—compiled by the increasingly sensationalist and commercial Which? magazine.

We have to stop being afraid of saying what has to be said. The quick fix of restricting food advertising has already brought consequences that are way beyond what was intended and has possibly brought more harmful effects than beneficial ones. Around £40 million of ad revenue per annum has been taken out of the TV market, in addition to the losses that commercial broadcasters have already incurred as advertisers have, over the past couple of years, voluntarily withdrawn from advertising during children’s programme times. This is yet another disincentive for broadcasters to invest in quality, UK-originated children’s programming, let alone to increase spend. So-called “junk food” advertising may well be replaced with much worse “junk TV” for children.

A 9 pm pre-watershed ban is not the answer to reducing childhood obesity. When considering the option of excluding all HFSS advertising before the 9 pm watershed, Ofcom concluded that this would “undermine” its regulatory objectives. Rather than targeting children, it would prevent adults from viewing advertisements for HFSS products that are aimed at them and could make television an unattractive medium for food and drink advertisers.

According to Ofcom’s qualitative research, parents have indicated that they do not favour a ban on HFSS advertising extending to 9 pm. Also, Ofcom considers that the impact on broadcasters would be disproportionate. Ofcom also says that, given the limited impact that advertising has on children’s food preferences, excluding the advertising of such foods before the 9 pm watershed would have a minimal effect on obesity levels in contrast to the impact that it will have on broadcasters’ revenues and, as such, on the quality of programming.

It is clearly not rational to introduce yet more changes when the current ones are only now being phased in. What is often forgotten in this depressing debate is the positive power of advertising. At a time when the Department of Health is rightly looking at a public information campaign to educate and inform the public of the dangers of alcohol abuse, why are similar, well thought-out and logical solutions not being proposed in the obesity debate? It is time to end the increasingly hysterical calls for bans, restrictions and bandwagons and to look instead for common sense, clarity and real solutions.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page