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‘Dismayed’ advertising and food groups blast new UK rules on junk food ads

‘Dismayed’ advertising and food industry groups today blasted new rules making junk food adverts subject to heavier online restrictions and a 9pm TV watershed from 2023, branding them ‘headline-chasing policies’.

Fast food and confectionery giants in Britain will be banned from advertising products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) online, although there will be exemptions for small businesses with 249 employees or fewer.

And the new restrictions – which some Conservatives are billing as an unwelcome intervention by the ‘nanny state’ – will stop short of the total ban which was proposed last year, part of Boris Johnson’s efforts to tackle obesity, as brand-only advertising online and on TV will be allowed to continue.

Biscuits, cakes, chocolate bars, ready meals and other products high in sugar, salt or fat will be hit by the ban, although other high calorie non-junk foods such as avocado, honey, olive oil and Marmite will be exempt.

But the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising said the policy will have ‘no effect’ on childhood obesity, while the Advertising Association said broadcasters and online publishers will ‘lose vital advertising revenue to fund jobs’.

The Internet Advertising Bureau said it was ‘astounded’ by the ‘blunt and ill-informed policy’, and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers accused the Government of having ‘tied itself in knots’ and causing ‘economic harm’.

And the Food and Drink Federation said the proposals would make it difficult to advertise many products that have been carefully reformulated or created in smaller portions in-line with the Government’s own targets.

Meanwhile the News Media Association said it was ‘very disappointed’ by the ‘draconian measure’ which will ‘harm news media publishers who rely on advertising revenue to fund the journalism which keeps us all informed’. 

 

Boris Johnson, pictured running in London in May, was once a vocal opponent of state meddling in eating and drinking habits

Boris Johnson, pictured running in London in May, was once a vocal opponent of state meddling in eating and drinking habits

The drastic plans come amid a wider Government crackdown on the nation’s waistline, spearheaded by the Prime Minister after his near-fatal brush with Covid-19 last year that saw him taken to hospital.

Under the new rules, companies can continue to promote their products on their own websites and social media platforms under the new measures.

What will be covered by online advertising ban? 

The ban on junk food adverts will target food and drink products that are high in fat, sugar and salt. 

They have been selected using the Department of Health’s Nutrient Profiling Model, HFSS. 

 HFSS refers to food and drink products that are high in (saturated) fat, salt or sugar.

The foods selected using the model are: 

  • soft drinks with added sugar
  • juice drinks with added sugar 
  • milk drinks with added sugar 
  • crisps and savoury snacks
  • breakfast cereal 
  • chocolate confectionary 
  • sugar confectionary 
  • ice cream 
  • cakes
  • sweet biscuits 
  • morning goods 
  • pudding and dairy desserts 
  • yoghurts 
  • pizza 
  • chips and potato products 
  • family meal centres 
  • ready meals
  • breaded and battered products 
  • main meals (out-of-home) 
  • starters
  • sides and small plates (out-of-home) 
  • children’s meal bundles (out-of-home) 
  • sandwiches (out-of-home) 

Some products which technically score high on the HFSS model have been excluded, including Marmite, avocado, olive oil and honey. They are not seen to be significant causes of childhood obesity.

Firms will also be able to advertise on TV before the watershed if they do not show banned foods, a ruling that is expected to be opposed by health campaigners.

But Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: ‘The government has never had a proper definition of ‘junk food’ because none exists.

‘To avoid the public backlash that would come from banning wedding cake makers and local bakeries from advertising, it has created a carve-out for smaller businesses, but this only underlines to the absurdity.

‘Under the new plans, an apple pie can be advertised by a café but not by the McDonalds next door. The local takeaway can advertise kebabs and pizzas but Asda cannot advertise cheese.

‘With its new exemptions, the government has acknowledged that banning adverts for normal, everyday food products would stifle competition, hurt businesses and be bad for consumers.

‘It should now throw in the towel and accept that advertising jam, sandwiches and olive oil should not be a criminal act under any circumstance, regardless of how many people the company employs.’

Online audio will be exempted from the rules, meaning that fast food and confectionery will be advertised on radio stations broadcasting over the internet, as well as on podcasts.

The new regulations also allow exemptions for the healthiest foods within each category, such as honey, olive oil, avocados and marmite.

But Sue Eustace, public affairs director at the Advertising Association, said: ‘We are dismayed Government is moving ahead with its HFSS ad ban on TV before the 9pm watershed and increased restrictions online.

‘This means many food and drink companies won’t be able to advertise new product innovations and reformulations and larger food-on-the-go, pub and restaurant chains may not be able to tell their customers about their menus.

‘Content providers – online publishers and broadcasters – will lose vital advertising revenue to fund jobs in editorial and programme-making.

‘We all want to see a healthier, more active population, but the Government’s own analysis shows these measures won’t work. Levelling up society will not be achieved by punishing some of the UK’s most successful industries for minimal effect on obesity levels.’ 

Plans to ban junk food adverts online were put out to consultation just before Christmas but faced fierce opposition from senior Tories and the industry.

The Department of Health and Social Care looked at projected figures of children's TV and online weekly media use, finding that children aged 4-15 watched about 21 per cent less broadcast TV in 2019 than in 2017, but those aged 12-15 now spend more time online than watching broadcast TV. Officials said trends suggest that children¿s exposure to HFSS (products high in fat, sugar and salt) advertising on broadcast TV is likely to decrease, while HFSS advertising exposure online is likely to rise

The Department of Health and Social Care looked at projected figures of children’s TV and online weekly media use, finding that children aged 4-15 watched about 21 per cent less broadcast TV in 2019 than in 2017, but those aged 12-15 now spend more time online than watching broadcast TV. Officials said trends suggest that children’s exposure to HFSS (products high in fat, sugar and salt) advertising on broadcast TV is likely to decrease, while HFSS advertising exposure online is likely to rise

The researchers also looked at when children are most likely to come across internet advertising, with Ofcom¿s Digital Day report in 2016 finding that 91 per cent of youngsters' online activity occurs between 5.30am and 9pm, peaking in the evening

The researchers also looked at when children are most likely to come across internet advertising, with Ofcom’s Digital Day report in 2016 finding that 91 per cent of youngsters’ online activity occurs between 5.30am and 9pm, peaking in the evening

Online has been the highest advertising expenditure by media channel since at least 2012, although it now accounts for a much greater proportion compared to TV and print - along with other formats such as radio, cinema and direct mail

Online has been the highest advertising expenditure by media channel since at least 2012, although it now accounts for a much greater proportion compared to TV and print – along with other formats such as radio, cinema and direct mail

While anti-obesity charities welcomed the idea, many Conservatives viewed it as an unacceptable intervention by the ‘nanny state’.

Boris’ battle with the bulge: How Covid scared Prime Minister into ditching midnight fridge raids on cheese and chorizo

Boris Johnson claimed he lost a stone on the back of his Covid scare by exercising daily and ditching late night cheese and chorizo binges.

Mr Johnson, 56, famously admitted ‘I was too fat’ after falling severely ill with the disease and being admitted to intensive care in April last year. 

The PM claimed to have lost about 14 pounds in the summer of 2020 after hiring a personal trainer and taking up intermittent fasting to speed up his weight loss.

His wife Carrie Johnson was also credited for helping the PM slim down.

Mr Johnson admitted to weighing 16.5stone (105kg) in 2018 when he was Foreign Secretary. At 5ft 10in, that made the PM clinically obese.

He blamed his bulging waistline on ‘late night binges of chorizo and cheese’ and revealed he had been shamed into cutting back by his doctor.  

At his heaviest, the PM weighed 17stone in 2013. In his column for The Telegraph at the time, he joked that his plan to get fitter was called Operation Chiselled Whippet. 

He wrote: ‘Since my normal cycling speed is so slow that my wife says it is a miracle I stay upright, I have decided to get in shape.’ 

Mr Johnson lost 12lbs in two weeks at the end of 2018 in the run up to his bid for Prime Minister.

He claimed during that time he was on track to dip below 15 stone (210lbs) for the first time since university.

He said he had taken to ‘guzzling water’ rather than drinking alcohol, writing in the Spectator at time time: ‘I breakfast like some Georgian hermit on porridge with a luxury sprinkling of nuts.’ 

Eton-educated Mr Johnson, who enjoyed rugby and cricket at school, first took up running in the early 2000s but reportedly gave up recently because of his knees.

Before Covid he was an avid tennis player and regularly played on the courts at Chequers, the PM’s country residence. 

In a Twitter video posted to his account last year, the PM encouraged the nation to lose weight while detailing his own dietary struggles.

Mrs Johnson is also ‘playing a big part’ in how careful he is with his diet. ‘She eats incredibly healthily which makes things a lot easier,’ a No10 source told the Mail on Sunday in March. 

One MP told MailOnline when the ban was first touted: ‘I don’t like nannying people. When George Osborne came up with the sugar tax that was bad enough and I think people should assume responsibility for their own health. It is not as straight forward as just banning things.’

Originally there were fears avocados, salmon, Marmite and even houmous could fall foul of the rules because of they are calorific and high in fat or sugar.

But those foods will be exempt from the advertising ban because they are not a significant cause of childhood obesity.

Small businesses — firms with fewer than 250 employees — will also be allowed to advertise unhealthy foods.

The Department of Health and Social Care said small businesses will be exempt because ‘the Government recognises these may be some of the hardest hit by the pandemic’.

However, the Food and Drink Federation’s chief scientific officer, Kate Halliwell, said she was ‘disappointed’ that the Government ‘continues to press ahead with headline-chasing policies which will undermine existing Government policies, principally the reformulation programmes to reduce calories, sugars and salt and portion sizes’.

She added: ‘The proposals would make it difficult to advertise many products that have been carefully reformulated or created in smaller portions in line with the Government’s own targets; for example, Cadbury would not be able to advertise their 30 per cent reduced sugar Dairy Milk.

‘Not only do the proposals signal a lack of joined-up policy, the implementation periods for both advertising and promotional restrictions do not give businesses enough time to prepare for the changes.

‘While we are disappointed that Government is pressing ahead with its plans for the bans, we will continue to work with Government constructively to ensure the policies are practical.’

And Sayra Tekin, legal, policy and regulatory affairs director of the News Media Association, said: ‘We are very disappointed that the Government has chosen to implement a ban on paid-for HFSS advertising online despite widespread concern that the evidence does not demonstrate a compelling causal link between advertising exposure and childhood obesity.

‘Instead of tackling the problem of childhood obesity, this draconian measure will harm news media publishers who rely on advertising revenue to fund the journalism which keeps us all informed. 

‘We urge the Government to reconsider and work with the industry to come up with a workable solution instead of implementing these ill-considered measures.’

Research from the NHS has found that one in three children leaving primary school are overweight or obese, as are almost two thirds of adults in England.

The consultation cited research finding that children were being exposed to increasing online junk food advertising.

The Government estimated that children aged under 16 were exposed to 15 billion junk food adverts online in 2019, compared with an estimated 700 million two years earlier.

But Phil Smith, director general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, said: ‘Advertisers agree that Britain has an obesity problem and that action must be taken. But in seeking to regulate rather than innovate, government has tied itself in knots.

‘There is no evidence that what Ministers are proposing will have any meaningful impact on children’s health. 

This graph shows online advertising spend by format, with paid-for searches increasing more than doubling since 2013

This graph shows online advertising spend by format, with paid-for searches increasing more than doubling since 2013

This graph gives an industry breakdown of the share of online ad spend in 2019, with industries which advertise food and drink in darker purple. These are 'consumer goods', 'retail' (which contains supermarkets and grocers) and 'restaurants'

This graph gives an industry breakdown of the share of online ad spend in 2019, with industries which advertise food and drink in darker purple. These are ‘consumer goods’, ‘retail’ (which contains supermarkets and grocers) and ‘restaurants’

The total number of minutes for the impact of TV advertising was calculated by using the average advert length of the adverts used in a model by Kantar, of 21.3 seconds. The 'baseline TV impact' in 2019 is estimated to be '0.29 minutes' per child per day

The total number of minutes for the impact of TV advertising was calculated by using the average advert length of the adverts used in a model by Kantar, of 21.3 seconds. The ‘baseline TV impact’ in 2019 is estimated to be ‘0.29 minutes’ per child per day

‘The possibilities of technology have been ignored, and industry’s attempts to deliver the desired outcome in a way which would also prevent economic harm to business have been waved away.

‘Blunt and ill-informed’: How experts reacted to junk food advertising ban 

Richard Lindsay, director of legal and public affairs at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising

‘As government is very aware, the ad bans it will be imposing will have no effect on the serious problem of childhood obesity.

‘The bans will grab headlines and suggest that government is doing ‘something’, but what it is doing is misguided and will serve only to damage businesses, not protect children’s health.

‘A TV watershed restriction will not target children and an online ban ignores more effective measures that would see technology being harnessed to reduce children’s exposure to certain types of ads without damaging businesses.

‘The devil will be in the detail, but loud headlines do not mean good policy.’

Sue Eustace, public affairs director at the Advertising Association

‘We are dismayed Government is moving ahead with its HFSS ad ban on TV before the 9pm watershed and increased restrictions online.

‘This means many food & drink companies won’t be able to advertise new product innovations and reformulations and larger food-on-the-go, pub and restaurant chains may not be able to tell their customers about their menus.

‘Content providers – online publishers and broadcasters – will lose vital advertising revenue to fund jobs in editorial and programme-making.

‘We all want to see a healthier, more active population, but the Government’s own analysis shows these measures won’t work. Levelling up society will not be achieved by punishing some of the UK’s most successful industries for minimal effect on obesity levels.’

Jon Mew, chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau

‘Following the announcement that the Government will legislate for a total ban of paid-for online ads for certain products high in fat, salt and sugar, I am astounded and hugely disappointed that headline-grabbing, hollow actions have trumped evidence-led solutions.

‘This blunt and ill-informed policy will not only do untold damage to the digital advertising industry, it creates the illusion of progress being made on the critical issue of childhood obesity, when in fact the evidence shows that banning ads online will achieve next to nothing in terms of reversing children’s obesity rates.

‘While there are some concessions for SMEs, brand ads and digital audio, by banning paid-for promotion of perfectly legal food products to all age groups, the Government will be inflicting untold damage on the digital advertising, media and hospitality industries at a crucial time of recovery.

‘Perhaps this would be understandable if the evidence available showed that online adverts are fuelling childhood obesity – yet the Government hasn’t been able to demonstrate that going beyond the existing restrictions and banning HFSS advertising entirely (for adults and children alike) is the right solution to such a complex and multifaceted issue as obesity.

‘An outright ban for digital media has been framed as a way to level the playing field with a TV watershed, yet HFSS advertising is not being eliminated, quite rightly, on TV or in any other form of media – apart from digital.

‘For a Government that claims to be unashamedly pro-tech, this ban demonstrates a failure to engage with the technological capabilities of digital advertising.

‘For months, we have been calling on the Government to work with us to build on the progress of existing regulatory requirements that protect children with smarter, digital-first solutions.

‘The proposal we put forward as an alternative to the ban would further restrict children’s already limited exposure to HFSS ads online, without inflicting unnecessary damage on the advertising, media and hospitality industries.

‘The Government has today made the wrong decision to implement a bad policy – one that is not fit for our digital age nor fit for the job it is setting out to do.’

Phil Smith, director general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers

‘Advertisers agree that Britain has an obesity problem and that action must be taken. But in seeking to regulate rather than innovate, government has tied itself in knots.

‘There is no evidence that what Ministers are proposing will have any meaningful impact on children’s health.

‘The possibilities of technology have been ignored, and industry’s attempts to deliver the desired outcome in a way which would also prevent economic harm to business have been waved away.

‘We will look carefully at the detail, but at a moment which calls for economic recovery and serious, evidence-based policy to improve children’s health, it seems that government has plumped for headlines over meaningful reform.’

Kate Halliwell, chief scientific officer at the Food and Drink Federation

‘We are disappointed that the Government continues to press ahead with headline chasing policies which will undermine existing Government policies, principally the reformulation programmes to reduce calories, sugars and salt and portion sizes.

‘The proposals would make it difficult to advertise many products that have been carefully reformulated or created in smaller portions in-line with the Government’s own targets; for example, Cadbury would not be able to advertise their 30% reduced sugar Dairy Milk.

‘Not only do the proposals signal a lack of joined-up policy, the implementation periods for both advertising and promotional restrictions do not give businesses enough time to prepare for the changes.

‘While we are disappointed that Government is pressing ahead with its plans for the bans, we will continue to work with Government constructively to ensure the policies are practical.’

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of hospitality industry group UKHospitality

‘It’s positive that the Government has heeded many of the sector’s concerns, such as exempting smaller businesses and limiting the scope to paid-for advertising. 

‘Such concessions are appreciated at a time when hospitality is trying to get back on its feet following the huge impacts of the pandemic.

‘There is still plenty in today’s announcement that will impose considerable constraints, though, with little discernible evidence of them making a positive difference on obesity. Furthermore, there appears to be little flexibility for future redress of these measures, should they prove to be ineffective.’ 

‘We will look carefully at the detail, but at a moment which calls for economic recovery and serious, evidence-based policy to improve children’s health, it seems that government has plumped for headlines over meaningful reform.’

Mr Smith’s thoughts were echoed by Richard Lindsay, director of legal and public affairs at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, who said: ‘As government is very aware, the ad bans it will be imposing will have no effect on the serious problem of childhood obesity.

‘The bans will grab headlines and suggest that government is doing ‘something’, but what it is doing is misguided and will serve only to damage businesses, not protect children’s health.

‘A TV watershed restriction will not target children and an online ban ignores more effective measures that would see technology being harnessed to reduce children’s exposure to certain types of ads without damaging businesses.

‘The devil will be in the detail, but loud headlines do not mean good policy.’

The Government has also developed the Nutrient Profiling Model, which gives each food a score based on how unhealthy its make-up of fat, sugar and salt is.

Health officials said the new restrictions could remove up to 7.2billion calories from children’s diets per year in the UK which, over the coming years, and reduce the number of obese children by more than 20,000.

They cited research from 2019 showing that almost half of all food adverts shown over the month on ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One were for products high in fat, salt and sugar, rising to nearly 60 per cent between 6pm and 9pm.

Ofcom anlaysis suggests that children’s viewing peaks in the hours after school, with the largest number of child viewers concentrated around family viewing time, between 6pm and 9pm.

But Jon Mew, chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau, said he was ‘astounded and hugely disappointed that headline-grabbing, hollow actions have trumped evidence-led solutions’.

Mr Mew continued: ‘This blunt and ill-informed policy will not only do untold damage to the digital advertising industry, it creates the illusion of progress being made on the critical issue of childhood obesity, when in fact the evidence shows that banning ads online will achieve next to nothing in terms of reversing children’s obesity rates.

‘While there are some concessions for SMEs, brand ads and digital audio, by banning paid-for promotion of perfectly legal food products to all age groups, the Government will be inflicting untold damage on the digital advertising, media and hospitality industries at a crucial time of recovery.

‘Perhaps this would be understandable if the evidence available showed that online adverts are fuelling childhood obesity – yet the Government hasn’t been able to demonstrate that going beyond the existing restrictions and banning HFSS advertising entirely (for adults and children alike) is the right solution to such a complex and multifaceted issue as obesity.’

He added: ‘The Government has today made the wrong decision to implement a bad policy – one that is not fit for our digital age nor fit for the job it is setting out to do.’

However, defending the policy, public health minister Jo Churchill said the Government was ‘committed to improving the health of our children and tackling obesity’.

She added: The content youngsters see can have an impact on the choices they make and habits they form. With children spending more time online it is vital we act to protect them from unhealthy advertising.

‘These measures form another key part of our strategy to get the nation fitter and healthier by giving them the chance to make more informed decisions when it comes to food.

‘We need to take urgent action to level up health inequalities. This action on advertising will help to wipe billions off the national calorie count and give our children a fair chance of a healthy lifestyle.’

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of hospitality industry group UKHospitality, said: ‘It’s positive that the Government has heeded many of the sector’s concerns, such as exempting smaller businesses and limiting the scope to paid-for advertising. 

‘Such concessions are appreciated at a time when hospitality is trying to get back on its feet following the huge impacts of the pandemic.

‘There is still plenty in today’s announcement that will impose considerable constraints, though, with little discernible evidence of them making a positive difference on obesity. Furthermore, there appears to be little flexibility for future redress of these measures, should they prove to be ineffective.’

The exemption for small business was welcomed by the Federation of Small Businesses this afternoon.

Its national chair Mike Cherry said: ‘We’re pleased to see that, after much campaigning, the government has embraced our recommendations and exempted the smallest business from this junk food ad ban.

‘Just at the time when we need small businesses to bounce back from the pandemic and attract customers to our high streets, the last thing they needed was a plan to ban them from promoting what they do.

‘Today’s exemption avoids the absurd impact of having a chocolatier unable to post photographs on Instagram or Facebook; a fish and chip shop or bakery stopped from emailing its customers about its new range; or an ice cream store near the beach from being part of its local tourism guide or business directory.

‘So we welcome this common sense move from the Government, which will enable hundreds of thousands of small firms to get back on their feet faster.’

Analysis by the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) earlier this year suggested ending the ads could benefit children by removing the equivalent of 150million chocolate biscuits or 41million cheeseburgers a year from their diets.

Caroline Cerny, from the OHA, said today: ‘Going ahead with landmark policies to restrict unhealthy food advertising shows that the Government is serious about putting our nation’s health first.

‘Tough new restrictions will stem the flood of adverts on TV and online that entice us towards sugary and high fat foods, making space to advertise healthier foods.’

And Barbara Crowther, Sustain’s children’s food campaign co-ordinator, added: ‘The proposals represent a significant step forward in reducing exposure to a constant stream of unhealthy food and drink advertising on TV and online.

‘The Government has been subjected to intense industry lobbying to keep advertising junk food everywhere, and we’re delighted that they have resisted this pressure and are standing up for children’s health and a healthier food environment for all.

‘However, we remain concerned that the proposals will still allow massive multinational junk food companies and delivery platforms to run big brand campaigns. In short, it’s a very positive step in the right direction, but the journey towards a comprehensive healthier food advertising world is far from over.’

The Prime Minister previously described himself as ‘very libertarian’ and refused to back restrictions on fast food advertising and so-called ‘sin taxes’ on junk food companies.

The National Child Measurement Programme measures children¿s weight and height in reception and Year 6. The latest data, shown in these graphs, reveals that obesity rates are significantly higher in more deprived areas of the UK in both age groups

The National Child Measurement Programme measures children’s weight and height in reception and Year 6. The latest data, shown in these graphs, reveals that obesity rates are significantly higher in more deprived areas of the UK in both age groups

This graph compares the distribution of advertising spend for products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) across the day, with when children aged 4-15 are watching TV

This graph compares the distribution of advertising spend for products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) across the day, with when children aged 4-15 are watching TV

But he admitted having a change of heart after falling critically ill with Covid last April at the height of the first wave, reportedly telling advisers in May: ‘I have changed my mind on this.’

He said doctors told him his weight had contributed to the severity of his infection. Obesity is one of the main risk factors for the virus.

Mr Johnson has also suggested that Britain’s obesity crisis has been partly to blame for the nation recording one of the worst death tolls during the pandemic.

He has been seen going for daily jogs with his dog since recovering from Covid and is said to have lost at least 14 pounds.

His hospital stint appears to have been the impetus for his obesity crackdown, which got up and running last summer when the PM unveiled plans for a ban on buy-one-get-one-free deals for junk food, as well as today’s ban on online junk food adverts. The BOGOF ban comes into force in April 2022.

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