Food for thought: can restricting junk food advertising help to tackle obesity?

Tackling obesity – particularly in children – has become one of the world’s biggest public health priorities.

Here in the UK, where obesity rates are among the worst in Western Europe, various initiatives have been launched in an effort to make positive changes: from Jamie Oliver’s We’ve #AdEnough campaign to the UK government’s recent proposal of a 9pm watershed on junk food ads, which is currently under consultation.

But, while steps are being taken to limit the advertising of junk food products in general, a recent report by the charity Sustain (the alliance for better food and farming) and Food Active (a healthy weight programme) suggests more needs to be done.

Their report exposes legislative gaps that leave certain outdoor advertising spaces beyond the jurisdiction of local councils. It also suggests that the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) remit should be extended to all places children tend to congregate – meaning restrictions on junk food ads near parks, nurseries and family attractions, as well as schools.

While the report welcomes the ban on junk food adverts at Transport for London sites, which was introduced by the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, earlier this year, it also calls for local authorities to be given greater power to restrict junk food advertising within their own communities. Other recommendations include tighter restrictions on in-store advertising and giving the ASA the power to impose fines on companies that break advertising rules more than once in three years.

Not everyone agrees with these proposed clamp downs. There are some in the advertising and consumer industry who have expressed concern not only at the impact an outright ban on junk food adverts could have on those reliant on advertising revenue, but also on mis-assigning blame for the obesity rise on these adverts. The Advertising Association, for example, has suggested a decline in physical activity could be the real problem.

Of course, the immense power of advertising to influence decision-making – good and bad – is well-known and documented.

Used correctly as part of a behaviour change campaign, advertising can be a powerful tool for supporting positive public health outcomes – look no further than the NHS’ Smokefree or Change4Life as examples of multi-faceted health campaigns that have included a strong advertising element.

But, if used irresponsibly, particularly when targeting children, advertising can have a harmful impact on health. A survey commissioned last year by Cancer Research UK found teens bombarded by TV ads for unhealthy, high-calorie food could consume more than 500 extra snacks a year, such as crisps or fizzy drinks, compared to those who watched less telly.

Whatever your view on the impact of junk food ads, it is clear we need to get a tighter grip on the factors that contribute to our growing obesity problem.

More than a quarter of four to five-year-olds in Wales are now overweight or obese, and research suggests the vast majority (around 80 per cent) of them will remain so.

Experts predict that, in Wales alone, illnesses linked to obesity will cost the NHS more than £465 million annually by 2050. Obesity is the second largest preventable cause of cancer after smoking and is linked to Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Earlier this year, Freshwater supported the Welsh Government on its ‘Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales’ consultation process – seeking feedback and views on its national ambitions to prevent and reduce obesity in Wales.

Acknowledging links between individual behaviour and societal influences, the Welsh Government supports national proposals for a 9pm watershed on TV and online junk food ads but goes further still, proposing an outright ban on brand-generated and licensed character or celebrity endorsements of unhealthy products across all media.

Recognising that there are no simple solutions to the scale of the obesity crisis we are facing, these are just a few examples, out of a comprehensive package of measures that the Welsh Government is consulting on.

Putting restrictions around junk food adverts will help, but it won’t solve the problem alone.

This article was written by our Group Managing Director, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 8 May 2019.