Government's consultation on total ban of online ads for junk food slammed

·3 min read
Children are exposed to over 15 billion adverts for unhealthy food online every year. Photo: Getty Images
Research shows children are exposed to over 15 billion adverts for unhealthy food online every year. Photo: Getty Images

The UK government launched a consultation on proposals to ban online advertisements for foods high in fat, sugar and salt in a bid to tackle the country’s obesity crisis.

The move was criticised as being harmful for businesses already struggling to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

A statement released by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport cited research as showing that children are exposed to over 15 billion ads for unhealthy food online every year.

The statement said exposure to such advertising can affect what children’s eating habits, both in the short term by increasing the amount of food children eat immediately after being exposed to an ad, and in the longer term by shaping their food preferences.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “We know as children spend more time online, parents want to be reassured they are not being exposed to adverts promoting unhealthy foods, which can affect eating habits for life.

“This will be a world-leading measure to tackle the obesity challenges we face now but it will also address a problem that will only become more prominent in the future.”

However, the consultation news has been met with harsh criticism. According to a joint statement from ISBA, IAB UK, IPA and the Advertising Association: “The proposal to completely outlaw online advertising of certain food and drink is a severe and disproportionate measure that goes far beyond the government’s objective of protecting children.

“Instead, it will do untold harm to the UK’s vitally important creative sector and food and drink businesses at an economically precarious time,” it added, and went on to say: “the advertising sector is a proven engine of the UK economy, and we would urge ministers not to damage the jobs and tax revenue it creates.”

The consultation will run for six weeks and gather views from the public and industry stakeholders to understand the impact and challenges of a ban.

Slamming the timeline, the Food and Drink Federation’s head of UK diet and health policy Kate Halliwell told PA Media: “The length of the consultation potentially hampers the industry’s ability to respond effectively at a time when businesses are facing enormous pressure.

“It 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,” she added.

The government, for its part, said it wants to build on obesity measures announced in July.

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Public Health Minister Jo Churchill said the government said: “We need to go further and address how children can be influenced online, where they are spending more and more of their time.”

The government has said obesity is one of the biggest health crises the country faces. Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity – and 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6bn ($8bn) a year.

It added that obesity puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19: Nearly 8% of critically ill patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population.

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