Online junk food ads face total UK ban in drive to tackle obesity

Boris Johnson unveiled a number of sweeping curbs on the sale of unhealthy foods in Britain on Monday and a consultation on banning all online advertising for them.

Under some of the most restrictive marketing controls in the world, the prime minister announced a pre-9pm watershed on television and online adverts.

Going one step further, ministers will also hold a “new, short consultation” on whether the ban on online adverts “should apply at all times of day” and a separate consultation on putting calorie labels on alcoholic drinks.

Large restaurants, cafés and takeaways with more than 250 employees will be required to put calorie labels on menus under the government’s plans, which include tough limits on promotions by price, such as multi-buy deals and “buy one, get one free”.

New restrictions on the placement of foods high in fat and sugar in supermarket checkouts, the ends of aisles and store entrances, will also come into force. Separately, GPs will be encouraged to “prescribe exercise”. Government officials said the new measures will apply “as soon as possible.”

The Food and Drink Federation denounced the proposals as “a terrible missed opportunity”. Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer, said: “The UK’s food and drink manufacturers and the half a million people we employ — so recently the heroes heralded by government for feeding the nation during the Covid crisis — will be reeling today from this punishing blow.

A children’s menu at a café in Camberwell, London. A third of children in the UK are now considered overweight or obese. © Jack Taylor/Getty

“As the economy struggles to recover, new restrictions on promoting and advertising everyday food and drink will increase the price of food, reduce consumer choice and threaten jobs across the UK,” he added.

Doctors, charities and local government chiefs welcomed the government’s new anti-obesity drive — but some suggested the government needed to go “further and faster” to slim Britons’ waistlines.

Moves to crack down on advertising and promotions of junk food were broadly welcomed. But some questioned whether the blueprint put too much focus on individual responsibility for losing weight and called for more investment in public health.

Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the strategy “isn’t as all-encompassing as we’d hoped for”, although the moves to reduce unhealthy product promotions and action on junk food advertising would “make a real difference”.

Obesity was the result of biological, genetic and social factors, he said. Prof Goddard warned: “There is a risk that we once again fall into the trap of mainly focusing on individual responsibility. We’ve been down this path before and it doesn’t work”.

Mr Johnson has previously criticised “sin taxes” but his brush with death from coronavirus in April prompted a change of heart from the prime minister, who was convinced that he fell particularly ill because he was overweight.

“Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier,” he said. “If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus — as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”

An NHS England study in 2018 found that 64 per cent of adults and 30 per cent of children were overweight or obese, while the government estimates that obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £6 billion every year.

Adam Briggs, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, a charity, said: “All the signs are pointing to this strategy being another set of isolated policies that will not on their own be enough to tackle the obesity crisis.”

A commitment to restrict price promotions and advertising of unhealthy food is welcome, “but there is little sign of policies that will address the root causes of obesity,” he said. 


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