FDF raises concerns over TV ad ban on confectionery and snacks

The UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has raised concerns over government plans for a ban on online advertising within segments including confectionery and snacks deemed higher in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), reports Neill Barston.

According to the Department of Health and Social Care, it is proposing to introduce restrictions on both screen and internet ads by 2023 (in not permitting promotions before 9pm), in response to an unfolding obesity crisis, in which two thirds of British adults, and a third of those leaving primary school are overweight.

The move is thought to potentially cost advertisers over £200 million in lost revenues, but according to government feedback, a clear majority of respondents to its consultation were in favour of action being taken. The present cost to the NHS for obesity related treatment is £6.1 billion, with the wider cost to society put at £27 billion, from government estimates.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had himself dismissed previous attempts by health authorities to influence sugar and fat intake – but is said to have changed his views following having been hospitalised by Covid-19 last year, in which he acknowledged weight issues were a factor in the severity of his condition.

In a statement on its planned move, the government said: “The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into sharper focus as evidence shows that people who are overweight or living with obesity who contract COVID-19 are at greater risk of being seriously ill and dying from the virus.

“As excess weight is one of the few modifiable factors for COVID-19, government has been clear that there is an urgent need to help support people to achieve a healthier weight and do all that we can to improve the health of our nation to better equip us for the future.”

The government’s analysis of the situation also noted that children’s prime viewing hours were in the early evening, which was a time which should be most focused upon as part of its actions (before 9pm). In addition, with younger people spending typically 15-20% more online than in front of television screens, it believed its actions had to apply equally to web-based marketing campaigns as well.

However, the FDF has raised issues with the nature of the advertising ban, after it was joined last November by Mars, Mondelez, Haribo and pladis in a move to extend the consultation period over the proposed advertising cuts.

The FDF’s Chief Scientific Officer, Kate Halliwell, said: “We are disappointed that the Government continues to press ahead with headline chasing policies which will undermine existing Government policies, principally the reformulation programmes to reduce calories, sugars and salt and portion sizes.

“The proposals would make it difficult to advertise many products that have been carefully reformulated or created in smaller portions in-line with the Government’s own targets; for example, Cadbury would not be able to advertise their 30% reduced sugar Dairy Milk.”

“Not only do the proposals signal a lack of joined-up policy, the implementation periods for both advertising and promotional restrictions do not give businesses enough time to prepare for the changes. While we are disappointed that Government is pressing ahead with its plans for the bans, we will continue to work with Government constructively to ensure the policies are practical.”

Public Health England, which is reportedly set to be replaced by an institution known as the National Institute for Health Protection, had set the food and drink sector a voluntary challenge of reducing sugar levels in product areas including confectionery and snacks by 20%.

During the course of a four-year period between 2015-2019 sugar levels fell just 0.1%, with chocolate managing 0.4% reductions – leading to campaigners calling for mandatory implementation of the scheme, as has successfully been achieved with the drinks-based ‘sugar tax.’

Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of health organisation Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, Queen Mary University of London commented on the government’s plans.

He said: “Parents want their children to see only healthier foods advertised which is why we welcome this positive response from the Government’s advertising consultation.

“While this is not a total ban on unhealthy food and drink advertising, the fact that meals high in salt, fat and sugar which are served by large fast food chains will be included in the restrictions is hugely significant. This is especially pertinent given many big food chains have been profiting enormously from advertising during the pandemic.

“With figures published last year suggesting that nearly two-thirds of adults in England are either overweight or living with obesity (and obesity linked to the worst outcomes of Covid-19), the food & drink industry, including the hospitality sector, should not wait until 2023 to adhere to these restrictions –and immediately get behind these new measures and support the nation’s health.

He added that that action to prevent obesity must also include treatment of those who are overweight, led by a strong programme of product reformulation.


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