Doctors say media watchdog Ofcom should no longer be allowed to set rules on junk food adverts.
They claim the watchdog is influenced by broadcasters and the food industry, and this may have prevented a 9pm ‘watershed’ for junk food ads being brought in to protect children.
Doctors working in public health looked at the last major regulations on advertising unhealthy food to children, introduced in 2009.
They say Ofcom appeared to prioritise commercial considerations over children’s health, begging the question of whether its ‘duty to protect broadcasting interests’ should allow it to lead public health regulation.
Ofcom stopped short of bringing in a watershed, which would have banned adverts of high-fat, sugary and salty food before 9pm when children were watching programmes like talent shows and soaps with their parents.
Junk food adverts during children’s television programmes have been banned since 2009 (pictured, Gary Lineker, who is the face of Walkers)
While it did ban junk food ads during programmes likely to be watched by four to 15-year-olds, it delayed this ban by almost two years following calls from industry representatives to do so.
The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, looked at a consultation on junk food adverts over 2006 and 2007, which received 139 responses from public health experts, politicians, campaigners and people linked to the food and broadcasting industries.
After industry entreaties, the new regulations on junk food ads during children’s programmes watched were pushed back from April 2007 to January 2009.
The idea of a watershed, proposed by the Department of Health and put forward in the consultation, was shelved. It was only revived in March of this year by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has launched another consultation.
Every 4.4 minutes of food advertising, compared with non-food advertising, is believed to increase people’s intake by 60 calories.
Ofcom’s own research suggested children would see 82 per cent fewer adverts for unhealthy food if there were a watershed.
HOW IS THE GOVERNMENT TRYING TO STOP OBESITY?
Proposed plans to restrict the number of calories in pizzas, pies and ready meals came on the back of a series of drastic Government moves to try and cut down on obesity.
A tax on added sugar in drinks came into force in April 2018, requiring firms to hand over more of the money they make from drinks which contain more than 5g of sugar per 100ml of liquid.
As a result, many soft drinks have had their recipes changed in order to avoid paying the tax and putting prices up. Sugary drinks are the biggest single source of sugar for children and teenagers.
The Government is also considering making it compulsory for all restaurants and fast food outlets to display the number of calories in each meal on their menu.
Some food outlets already do this but there can be unexpected numbers of calories in popular dishes, and the Government is consulting on the plans before a decision is due in spring.
In March this year, Public Health England warned Brits to crack down on the number of calories they’re eating, advising people to consume no more than 1,600 per day.
The watchdog says adults shouldn’t eat any more than 400 calories for breakfast, 600 for lunch and 600 for dinner – this would allow for some snacks, experts said.
Examples of 600-calorie meals include a tuna pasta salad and a small cereal bar, a chicken salad sandwich and a pack of crisps, or half a pepperoni pizza with a quarter of a garlic baguette and a banana.
In the same announcement PHE said shops selling the food should cut down their portion sizes to help people slim their waistlines.
Plans are also being considered to ban advertising junk food on television before 9pm, to reduce the number of children who are exposed to it.
The study concludes: ‘Ofcom appeared to believe that the commercial impact of the regulation of advertising should carry greatest weight, even when the aim of the regulation was to protect children’s health.’
Dr Ahmed Razavi, first author of the study from the University of Cambridge, said: ‘As a broadcast regulator, Ofcom may not be best placed to determine public health policy.
‘The 9pm watershed is now being considered as a policy measure over a decade after the initial Ofcom consultation, where earlier action could have helped combat childhood obesity and prevented some children becoming ill as a result.’
Barbara Crowther, campaign co-ordinator for the Children’s Food Campaign, said: ‘It is outrageous that Ofcom prioritised the commercial interests of the advertising industry over children’s right to health and protection from exposure to all forms of harm.
‘Ofcom failed to factor in the annual £6billion pound cost of obesity to our NHS, and their watered down 2009 regulations still allow junk food advertising during some of children’s favourite family TV shows today.’
Ofcom first looked at banning adverts for programmes aimed at children aged four to nine, then widened this to include all children under 16.
However it stopped short of bringing in a 9pm watershed, which was not a formal proposal but was part of its consultation, which asked: ‘Do you agree that the exclusion of all HFSS (food high in fat, salt and sugar) advertising before 9pm would be disproportionate?’.
The three doctors behind the study says ‘commercial considerations appear to have led to a watering down’ of the regulations.
Broadcasters and advertisers told the consultation a 9pm watershed would disproportionately affect advertising revenues, harm adult viewing, and have only marginal public health benefits.
The authors say: ‘Ofcom rejected the idea of a pre-9pm ban due to concerns about the effect it would have on broadcasters, programming and advertising revenues.’
Stating that Ofcom has direct responsibility for how adverts are scheduled, they added: ‘This then begs the question of whether a governmental body with a duty to protect broadcasting interests should be leading on public health legislation.’ A spokesman for Ofcom said protecting children from harm was a ‘priority’, adding that it considered all the evidence ‘in a fair and impartial way’ and worked with health experts.
Its statement added: ‘This change was based on expert nutritional models, and resulted in a 37 per cent reduction in children’s exposure to these types of adverts.’