The inclusion in the UK Labour Party’s new public health policy paper of a ‘watershed’ time restriction on the advertising of foods high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) as a future policy option has put the issue of food marketing to children firmly on the political agenda in the run-up to the country’s General Election in May.

The political potency of the issue was has been amplified significantly by the publication of a survey by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), which found 70% of parents with children aged four to 16 have been pestered by their children to buy junk food they have seen advertised on TV.

The survey of 2,100 parents with children aged 16 and under also revealed 43% of parents with children aged four to 16 say they are pestered in this manner at least once a week. Some 39% said they think junk food adverts on TV make it difficult to help their children eat healthily. 

The BHF’s take on these findings speaks to a long-running issue in the UK and elsewhere over children’s exposure to food advertising. While controls exist in many countries, including the UK, restricting the advertising of less healthy foods to children during children’s programming, these controls do not generally apply to mainstream TV where children are only a proportion of the audience.

Nevertheless, huge numbers of children watch these programmes. Indeed, in many cases these are the programmes with the highest children’s audience in pure numbers. A University of Liverpool study found viewers were seeing as many as six junk food adverts per hour in peak family viewing time.

With around a third of children in the UK overweight or obese, the BHF said the research highlights “the urgent need to close legal loopholes in the UK’s regulatory system” allowing companies to promote “unhealthy food and drink products to children both online and on TV during popular family TV shows”. 

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The BHF is calling for precisely the sort of pre-watershed ban on HFSS food advertising the Labour Party has included in its public health policy paper.

Whether or not the marketing of junk food remains a prominent issue during the election campaign remains to be seen. The introduction after the last election of fixed-term parliaments in the UK means this is an unprecedentedly long election campaign. The public health agenda has been raised relatively early. The length of the campaign could work in two ways. It could mean the issue is eclipsed in due course by the likely dominant issues such as the economy, taxation and immigration, or the longer campaign may give scope for the discussion of a broader range of issues than is often the case.

The proposals in its policy paper, pointedly entitled Protecting Children, Empowering All, Labour’s New Approach to Public Health in the 21st Century, chime with long-held campaigner concerns about the exposure of children to junk food marketing, not only through TV advertising but more recently through ‘advergaming’. Labour says it will ask the Committee on Advertising Practice and the Advertising Standards Authority to report on how children can be “better protected” from junk food advertising through non-broadcast media.

Speaking to just-food, Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, says restricting HFSS foods from being advertised before the 9pm watershed would be a “simple, effective and popular move, at one stroke removing this advertising from all the shows on commercial TV most watched by children”.

However, industry association the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), insists the UK has “one of the strictest advertising regulatory regimes in the world concerning the foods that can be advertised to children on TV”. He says the “rules are comprehensively adhered to and enforced”.

What the Labour paper unquestionably signals is that the party is not cowed by the prospect of being branded a ‘Nanny State’ party, in spite of suffering from adverse criticism towards the end of its 1997-2010 period in office on precisely those terms.

It is in the area of preventive public health where susceptibility to such criticism would be most keenly felt. Indeed, the paper refers to this specifically but, significantly, dismisses it as a motivation for tempering its approach. Labour seeks to “avoid accusations of a nanny state approach” by setting out clearly what it sees as “the proper limits to government action”. It also acknowledges that failing take account of the nanny state issue can undermine public support for public health measures.” A negative tone, perceived as telling people what to do, can turn people off,” the paper states.

However, the content of Labour’s public health policy paper suggests not only it views the issues it raises as extremely important but also that it sees political capital to be gained by marking out clear water between its intentions and the laissez-faire approach adopted by the Conservative-led coalition government since 2010.

That approach is epitomised by the Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD), which places the primary emphasis on voluntary commitments by industry. That emphasis would change under Labour to a more hands-on approach, in spite of concerns about the nanny state tag. “There is a danger in over-reacting to the nanny-state charge and failing to take the necessary action to protect people’s health,” Labour says. “The current Government, fearful of it, and unable to stand up to vested interests, has relied too heavily on a voluntary approach with industry. It has not worked.”

Perceived by campaigners and many academics as a lame duck, the PHRD would be under a shadow if Labour gain power. But what of its future direction in the event of a Conservative victory? The question is particularly pertinent with regard to food in the light of recent remarks by Susan Jebb, chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network, suggesting tougher measures may be necessary in the area of food promotion.

The PHRD is perceived by many non-industry stakeholders to have numerous weaknesses, and certainly among them on the food side is the omission from the food pledges of food promotion.

“The Responsibility Deal failed to address food promotion, even though that was one of its original intentions,” Clark tells just-food. “Voluntary initiatives will never be sufficient. We now want to hear from all parties what mandatory measures they would introduce to restrict the marketing of less healthy food to children.”

When asked whether the PHRD could be expanded to cover food marketing, Barbara Gallani, director of regulation, science and health at the FDF, declined to be drawn, simply saying that “FDF and our members remain committed to working in partnership with Government and others to drive improvements in public health by addressing the many causes of overweight and obesity”.

The heightened political debate over food marketing and the BHF findings will be keenly observed in other markets where the issue of children’s exposure to food advertising has become a subject of intense debate. By the same token, the policy response to this issue – and to other areas of concern such as advergaming – will be of interest to lawmakers across many countries.