Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity.
Last June, the Government published the second chapter of its childhood obesity plan, which set a new national ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030. It’s great to see that we are now poised to make that dramatic improvement to the health of our children and future generations. And not a moment too soon.
I find it scarcely believable that more than a quarter of children in the UK are overweight or obese; and a child who is obese is five times more likely to remain so as an adult. Obesity can lead to a number of devastating yet preventable diseases, including 13 different types of cancer.
And if its impact on the health of our youngsters wasn’t enough, it’s estimated that each year obesity costs the NHS £5.1 billion and the wider economy £27 billion – money we can ill afford to squander.
But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to realise that ambition. First, the Government must consult on the commitments laid out in the plan. The latest consultation, on the possible introduction of a ban on all TV adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) before 9pm and equivalent restrictions online, was due to be published at the end of 2018, but there is still no clear publication date in sight.
According to Cancer Research UK’s posters, which were displayed around Westminster tube station in January, teenagers who recall seeing junk food adverts every day are twice as likely to be obese. And those who watch more than three hours of commercial TV a day are more likely to eat a whopping 520 extra snacks a year.
Recent early-stage analysis of advertising data for May 2018, also done by the charity, found that on ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One, around half (49 per cent) of all food adverts shown between 6pm and 9pm in May 2018 were advertising HFSS products. And that fast food and delivery brands accounted for more than a quarter (27 per cent) of those HFSS adverts.
So to protect youngsters from a barrage of unhealthy food adverts every time they tune in to watch popular prime time shows, it’s crucial Government recommends and implements a 9pm watershed as a result of the consultation.
There is no one size fits all approach to reducing childhood obesity, but it’s time industry buckled down and took some responsibility.
There will always be concerns when changes to regulation are proposed. But a watershed doesn’t automatically mean that businesses and broadcasters will suffer financially. Cancer Research UK analysis has found that only a relatively small proportion of ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One’s advertising revenue in May 2018 was derived from HFSS ads.
This revenue loss would be mitigated by the fact that a watershed would only apply between 5.30am and 9pm. On top of this, many of the brands that currently advertise HFSS foods before the watershed already have non-HFSS alternatives which they could advertise instead, further reducing any potential impact on broadcasters’ revenue.
And as demonstrated by the recent ITV partnership on the Veg Power campaign, there are other products to advertise.
This fantastic new advert, which calls for kids to eat more veg, shows a willingness from the broadcasting industry to move away from HFSS advertising, but is also an admission from advertisers that prime time television is particularly impactful.
This advert was designed to speak directly to kids, but rather than being showing on dedicated children’s programming, it was launched during an episode of The Voice on a Saturday evening. While this advert doesn’t promote junk food, it is absolutely crucial these types of shows are regulated to prevent adverts that do – we need a 9pm watershed.
Besides, the cost to the long-term health of our children is what really should matter. That’s why there are no excuses for not implementing this ambitious but necessary plan to reverse the tide of obesity engulfing our country.