Britain has banned junk-food advertising across all children’s media – including online and social – in a landmark decision to help tackle childhood obesity.
New rules ban advertising food or drink high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) across all non-broadcast media targeted at under-16s from July, the UK Committee of Advertising Practice announced.
New Zealand and Australian governments are dragging their feet on similar action, with opponents suggesting they are running scared from the junk-food and soft-drink industries.
In the New Zealand Parliament on the same day as Britain introduced its sanctions, the Green Party said the Health Minister’s opposition to a sugary drinks tax uses a Coca Cola-funded study and ignores advice from his government’s chief science adviser.
In Australia, a government-funded think-tank has also called on the federal government to introduce a tax on sugary drinks.
“Our consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is among the highest in the world, with Australians and New Zealanders consuming an average of 76 litres of these drinks per person every year – that’s simply way too much,” said the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association’s chief executive, Alison Verhoeven.
Britain’s changes bring print, cinema and, crucially, online and social media into line with TV, where strict regulation already prohibits advertising unhealthy food to children.
They will ban ads that promote HFSS products from appearing in media where children make up more than 25% of the audience.
The restrictions also apply to TV-like content online, such as video-sharing platforms or ‘advergames’.
Companies are banned from using promotions, characters or celebrities popular with children in ads for HFSS food or drink unless they are advertising healthier options.
The change will help protect the health and wellbeing of children and lead to a major reduction in the number of ads for HFSS food and drinks they see, said the committee, which writes and maintains UK advertising codes.
Ofcom, the government’s broadcasting regulator, has produced figures showing children aged 5-15 spend about 15 hours each week online, overtaking the time spent watching TV.
Jenny Rosborough, campaign manager at Action on Sugar, called for restrictions to be extended to programmes such as X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, which are hugely popular with children but exempt from restrictions because they fall outside children’s programming.
Food and Drink Federation director-general Ian Wright said the group fully supported the new rules.
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, a GP, has consistently said the government will not support a sugary drinks tax because there is not enough evidence it would help reduce consumption and curb obesity.
In Parliament last week, the Greens tabled an email obtained under the Official Information Act which showed government science advertiser Sir Peter Gluckman told Coleman on July 3 that evidence for a tax was compelling.
“There is now a lot more compelling data from Mexico and Europe … recent evidence suggests a surprisingly (at least to me) large and sustained effect particularly in groups most at risk of obesity both in childhood and in adulthood.”
In October Coleman said Gluckman “admitted there was no clear evidence” for a sugary drinks tax.
Coleman was also criticised for using evidence from an unpublished study part-funded by the food and beverage industry. Written by academics at a Mexican private university, the paper was a collaboration with a food and beverage industry association whose members include Coca Cola and PepsiCo.
The Grattan Institute has called on the federal government to introduce a tax of 40c per 100g of sugar in beverages. A 2-litre bottle of soft drink would rise about 80c.
The independent think-tank is funded by the federal government, Victoria government, University of Melbourne and BHP Billiton.
A tax would raise about $A500m a year and, it’s suggested, trigger a 15% drop in consumption of sugary drinks.
More than 15 national and state governments have introduced such a tax, including UK, France and the US.
According to PwC, obesity was conservatively estimated to cost Australia $A8.6b in health costs and lost productivity in 2011-12. More recent studies put the cost much higher.