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Ofcom under pressure over junk food ads

By Anthony Fletcher , 07-Jun-2006

The UK advertising regulator Ofcom is under pressure to reconsider its rejection of a 9pm watershed ban on junk food advertising, according to a UK newspaper.

The Financial Times says that Mary Creagh, along with a number of other MPs, met the watchdog this week to demand a rethink.

The consultation on Ofcom's proposed guidelines to restrict food and drink advertising closed yesterday.

The move could re-ignite a long-standing dispute over whether food ads specifically targeted at kids have contributed to the current obesity epidemic.

Ofcom published a number of proposals for consultation on this matter in March.

All these options had two things in common: a ban on food and drink advertising or sponsorship to pre-school children and a set of eight rules about the content of food and drink advertising set out by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP).

But the proposals fell short of the proposed blanket ban on advertising before 9pm that many in the industry feared.

"In principle the consultation will be welcomed by food and drink manufacturers as it stops short of the complete ban on pre-9pm HFSS (high in fat, salt and sugar) advertising that had been mooted," Nikki Ferguson, associate and food law specialist at Eversheds told FoodNavigator earlier this year.

However, renewed pressure could reinvigorate the debate. Creagh has been seeking action strong on this issue for years, and has argued consistently that the issue of children's health is not one that should wait for the voluntary actions of food advertisers.

Creagh has academic backing for her campaign. In July 2004 Ofcom published research that supported the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) conclusion of the direct effect of television food advertising on children's diets.

Both the FSA and Ofcom are said to agree that there are also significant indirect effects of advertising, which have a powerful influence' on young people's diets. The research also suggested that food promotions to children are dominated by unhealthy foods and that more than 95 per cent of all the foods advertised on children's television are for products that are high in fat, sugar or salt.

But others will not welcome a re-opening of this debate. The Incorporated Society of British advertisers (ISBA) for example, argues there is no short-term fix for the rising obesity problem in the UK.

ISBA director general Malcolm Earnshaw told a major industry seminar last week that self-regulation effectively remains the most effective method.

"Businesses, from chairman and chief executive down want to be good corporate citizens," he said.

"It is not profits before health; it is success as a result of consumer satisfaction, and as consumer needs and wants change, so brands and advertising will follow the consumer.

"Industry takes the complex problem of obesity very seriously, and for the last three years has set about implementing the Food, Drink and Advertising Industry seven point plan, committed to the Government."

Almost 14 per cent of Britain's children were obese in 2003, compared to 9.6 per cent in 1995, and doctors have warned half of the countries kids could be obese by 2020. Health authorities aim to halt the rise of obesity in kids under 11 years of age by 2010.

Obesity-related illnesses, which are inevitably linked to a lack of exercise, ate up 1.6bn of UK health service money last year according to the government's own figures.

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