When you read the Queen's Speech, it seems quite innocuous. "Measures will be brought forward to support the health and well-being of the nation, including to tackle obesity and improve mental health." The devil, as always, is in the detail. And for that, you have to look beyond Her Majesty's 8 minute speech, and turn instead to the 163 pages of the Background Briefing Notes published by The Prime Minister's Office.
The Briefing Notes announce that one of the main elements of the Health and Care Bill will be "Banning junk food adverts pre-9pm watershed on TV and a total ban online". Even the government's terminology, "junk food", is loaded. In the consultation process so far, there has been nothing to indicate that the government is going to reconsider the controversial 'nutrient profiling' that accompanied the first restrictions on advertising for foods profiled as being 'high' in fat, sugar and salt, whether 'junk' or otherwise. The Times reports that avocados, smoked salmon, hummus, butter and cheese are all caught by the nutrient profiling definition of HFSS foods, as well as Marmite.
The government has consulted on the 9 pm TV watershed and the total ban on online advertising over the last couple of years, as we reported here, and appears determined to press ahead with those, despite strong opposition from both the advertising industry and the food sector. The Times also suggests that the third idea put out to consultation, concerning volume based promotions, will also be implemented, although that does not appear to be referenced in the Briefing Notes.
There is a strong suspicion that this policy is a futile gesture. While it may allow the government to give the impression that it is doing something to tackle childhood obesity, in truth it is little more than a cheap gimmick. It may find favour with those who believe an ad ban is 'worth a try', but evidence based policy it is not. In 2019, an impact study by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport concluded that a child’s daily calorie would be reduced by 1.74 calories as a result of a total ban on TV advertising. Other Government evidence suggests that an online ad ban will reduce a child’s calorie intake by a 2.84 calories per day. This is not surprising, when you consider the very strict restrictions already in place, which thus far have failed to stem the rise in childhood obesity. And taking the two measures together, that's less than 5 calories per child per day, which hardly seems likely to tip the scales in the fight against childhood obesity.
Phil Smith, director-general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), said it best. “If, after months of engagement, government has chosen to ignore more sophisticated, better targeted, cheaper and more proportionate ways to protect children online, then business will be forgiven for thinking that this government cares less for serious policy than it does cheap headlines.”
The Times also reports that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) will be responsible for enforcing the ban, which raises some interesting questions. Given the ASA is a self-regulatory body that enforces the CAP and BCAP Code, why would it now be responsible for law enforcement? And even if the Codes are amended to reflect the new law, if advertisers in the United States of America or somewhere in Europe are advertising their chocolate, crisps or hamburgers - let alone their cheese, hummus or smoked salmon - in accordance with laws and regulations in their country of origin, how on earth is the ASA supposed to enforce the UK's ban against them? By sending a Royal Navy gun ship, like the one Boris used to vanquish the French fisherman blockading St. Helier Harbour?
Having watched the spread of creeping ad bans on HFSS foods for over a decade, the saddest thing about this announcement is that while it will damage business and the media, it will have no meaningful effect on childhood obesity. It simply serves to allow politicians to disguise activity as achievement.
“As their own evidence demonstrated, a blanket ban does next-to-nothing to tackle obesity whilst damaging business, risking jobs and restricting adult freedom of choice." Phil Smith, Director-General, The Incorporated Society of British Advertising