Further restrictions on junk food ads ‘not silver bullet’ for obesity – report

Tighter restrictions on junk food advertising are not the “silver bullet” for rising childhood obesity, the advertising industry has said.

The Advertising Association (AA) said evidence suggested a lack of exercise was driving the continued prevalence of obesity among certain groups in the UK.

It argued that a rise in obesity had occurred during a decade of declining exposure to advertising of products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) and falling calorie intake.

The industry body’s report comes as ministers are due to consult on policies to reduce childhood obesity, including a watershed for unhealthy food adverts on TV, and how to regulate on-demand and online adverts.

In its report titled The Challenge Of Childhood Obesity, the AA said it recognised that obesity was a “serious problem, impacting the health, well-being and life outcomes of the nation’s children”.

But it said the problem was a “complex social issue, with child obesity levels strongly affected by lifestyle and geography”.

Under current regulations, ads for HFSS products must not be directed at children, and no medium should be used to advertise such products if more than 25% of its audience is under 16.

The AA argued that if exposure to food adverts was a credible factor in obesity prevalence, it would be expected that the dramatic reduction in exposure to HFSS advertising over the past 10 years would have had a more significant impact on child obesity levels.

AA chief executive Stephen Woodford said: “Further restrictions on advertising are not the silver bullet for rising childhood obesity.

“The UK already has among the strictest and most effective restrictions on the exposure of children to the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar anywhere in the world.

“A continuing focus on the failed strategy of further advertising restriction is founded on the misplaced belief that children are ‘bombarded’ by HFSS advertising.

“To the contrary, the rise in obesity has occurred during a decade of declining exposure to HFSS advertising, and declining calorie intake.

“Any effective solution must focus first and foremost on countering the dramatic declines in physical activity and calories expended.

“This report demonstrates how advertising can play a key role in promoting healthy lifestyles, alongside real-world solutions to meet the challenge of obesity.”

Last week, health campaigners said a 9pm watershed on all junk food adverts extending to social media and outdoor digital billboards was “desperately needed” to protect children.

The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) is calling for children to be protected from ads for food high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) with a 9pm restriction across live TV, TV on-demand, radio, online, social media, apps, in-game, cinema and digital outdoor formats such as billboards.

Campaigners argue that existing regulations around junk food advertising introduced in 2007 for television and in 2017 for non-broadcast formats have significant loopholes by only applying to programmes, films or websites considered to be “of particular appeal” to children, and therefore not covering shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, which screen before 9pm.

A Government spokesman said: “We know that childhood obesity is one of the biggest health problems this country faces and a key part of our plans to halve it by 2030 is reducing children’s exposure to sugary and fatty foods.

“That’s why our forthcoming consultation on advertising will consider further advertising restrictions for these products on TV and online.”