If you wanted to lose weight, would you make cutting out the calorific equivalent of half a smartie a day your top priority? Or would you download the couch-to-5k app?
The government seems to be opting for the (not so) Smartie approach.
Despite its own research finding that a 9pm TV watershed on high fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) advertising would only lead to an estimated daily calorie reduction of just 1.7kcal per child – or half a Smartie – the Tories announced the launch of a six-week consultation on proposals to ban online adverts for HFSS foods, in a bid to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis.
If the government goes ahead with a total ban on online advertising the UK would have the toughest digital marketing restrictions for HFSS foods in the world.
Health activists unsurprisingly welcomed the proposed ban, with Fran Bernhardt, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, hailing it as “a world-leading policy to improve children’s health.”
There’s no doubt Britain needs to fight back against expanding waistlines. Shockingly, almost two-thirds of adults and a fifth of year 6 children are overweight or obese. Children under 16 were exposed to an estimated 15 billion online ‘junk food’ adverts in 2019.
However, this puritanical attack on junk food is not only unlikely to turn Britain into a nation of salad-munchers, but also threatens to further cripple an already vulnerable food and beverage industry that is contending with the Double Whopper of Covid-19 and Brexit.
As the Food and Drink Federation’s head of UK diet and health policy says, the proposed ban could “not come at a worse time for food and drink manufacturers – the industry is preparing for its busiest time of the year and working flat out to keep the nation fed through lockdown, all while facing down the very real threat of a no-deal Brexit.”
By determining what foods should be included based on their fat, salt and sugar content, the proposed restrictions also go far beyond what we traditionally think of as ‘junk’ foods and would embrace a host of items commonly found in most kitchens, including basics like cheese, oil and stock cubes.
This means that small, local food producers and independent retailers, which depend heavily on low-cost online ads, will be disproportionately impacted, heightening the problems that the high street is already facing with rising costs and changing consumer trends.
With redundancies in the third quarter of this year already 195,000 higher than in the comparable period last year, and almost 14,000 shops closing permanently since the start of 2020, the government should be avoiding policies that cause needless economic damage and make no significant benefit to public health.
Restrictions on advertising have been shown not to work in the past. In 2007, advertisers were banned from showing junk food ads during children’s television programmes. Fast forward to today, and childhood obesity is still an issue. Adverts aren’t the real problem.
There is no doubt that as a nation, we need to be fitter and healthier. But a total advertising ban for HFSS foods would not only fail to tackle the root causes of childhood obesity, but also deliver a potentially deadly blow to businesses already hard hit by Covid-19. The government would do well to junk the policy and cook up a new one instead.