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UK Government Targets Advertisements in Effort to Fight Obesity

The UK is cracking down on the promotion of unhealthy foods.

Unhealthy food advertisements will no longer be allowed in tube stations or bus stops across London starting in February, reported The Guardian (Nov. 23). The ban is an attempt by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to cut down on the promotion of foods high in salt, sugar and fat.

Restaurants will only be permitted to promote their healthiest products. Ads for unsalted nuts, raisins and sugar-free drinks will still be allowed but products deemed “less healthy” by Public Health England will be banned under the reforms, including chocolate bars, burgers and soft drinks.

The British capital has one of the highest child obesity rates in Europe with almost 40% of all 10 to 11-year-olds considered an unhealthy weight. A report by Cancer Research earlier this year found that young people who are bombarded with advertisements everyday were found twice as likely to be obese. It also determined that 87% of young people found ads for high fat, salt and sugar products appealing, with three-quarters tempted to eat a product after seeing such an ad.

This isn’t the first time the UK took measures to ban advertisements — especially those geared toward children. In August, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned a Kellogg’s TV ad campaign for a Coco Pops granola product for allegedly breaking rules against advertising junk food to children. The granola product itself was not found to be junk food by the ASA, however it said that the use of Kellogg’s famous “Coco the monkey” character and context of the ad broke the UK advertising code.

Several months later, The Guardian (Nov. 21) reported that the ban was overturned after an independent review of the decision. Kellogg’s argued that the ad did show the granola product as being clearly differentiated from the Coco Pops range, and that rules the ASA enforces state that it is fine to use a brand character usually associated with a sugary food to promote a healthy one.

However, a few days later on Nov. 29, The BBC reported that Kellogg’s gave in on using the government’s “traffic light” labelling on most of its cereal packs sold in the UK starting in January. The company will begin using a system that labels foods green, amber or red, to help consumers identify products that have low, medium or high levels of salt, fat and sugar.

Kellogg’s said they made the change after listening to consumers, government and retailers.

In another government initiative to promote healthy eating among children, those aged four to six attending a state school in England are eligible for a free fruit or vegetable each day at school. However, a recent report by the Soil Association claims that this produce is often of poor quality or inedible, leading to high levels of food waste, reported The Guardian (Nov. 27).

Children’s health campaigners are urging the British government to revamp this program, so perhaps this will be the next issue they attempt to tackle.

Meanwhile, the new sugar tax on soft drinks has raised $196.6 million since it was introduced in April, the government has said, reported The BBC (Nov. 20). This means that the tax is on track to raise the estimated proceeds of $306.7 million for the full year.

The sugar tax is applied to soft drinks with a certain amount of sugar per liter and health officials warn that more action will be taken against the food industry unless sugar is cut further. According to the World Health Organization, 59 countries now have sugar taxes in place.

A survey by Public Health England found that 90% of the public said they supported the government working with the industry to make food and drinks healthier, but most think the responsibility for tackling obesity lies with individuals themselves and families.

However, over four in 10 children were found to drink sugary drinks daily, according to a global report warning that most countries will not meet nutrition targets, reported The Guardian (Nov.29). Interestingly, this statistic shows a correlation with the obesity rate of 10 to 11-year-olds in London (40%) mentioned earlier.

Researchers are warning that the standard of diets around the world is “diabolical”, and that problems such as obesity, anemia and micronutrient deficiency are not being given enough attention.