Overweight man at a laptop working

UK takes steps to tackle unhealthy food advertising

In keeping with the government’s landmark obesity strategy, a new public consultation has been launched around new proposals to introduce a total ban on online advertising for unhealthy foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

The potential ban is seen as a key step in protecting children from developing long-term unhealthy eating habits.

Research shows, on average, children are exposed to over 15 billion adverts for products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) online every year.

Exposure to HFSS advertising has been shown to influence what children eat and when they eat, both in the short term by increasing the amount of food children eat immediately after being exposed to an advert, and by shaping longer-term unhealthy food preferences from a young age.

Obesity, and particularly childhood obesity, are some of the most significant health crises faced by the country at present.

According to Government data, almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity, while one in every three children leave primary school overweight or obese.

Obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS an approximate £6bn a year.

Equally, a link between obesity and a heightened risk from Covid-19 has added additional prescience to tackle obesity within the UK. Data so far has shown excess weight puts people at a greater risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, with the level of risk growing substantially as a person’s body mass index (BMI) increases.

Nearly 8% of critically ill patients with Covid-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared to just 2.9% of the general population.

The new public consultation, which is set to run for six weeks, will gather views from the public and industry stakeholders to understand the impact and challenges of introducing a total ban on the advertising of these products online, to help people live healthier lives and combat childhood obesity.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I am determined to help parents, children and families in the UK make healthier choices about what they eat.

“We know as children spend more time online, parents want to be reassured they are not being exposed to adverts promoting unhealthy foods, which can affect eating habits for life.

“This will be a world-leading measure to tackle the obesity challenges we face now but it will also address a problem that will only become more prominent in the future.”

Public Health Minister Jo Churchill added: “It’s vital we build on the world-leading obesity measures announced in July to ensure our efforts to tackle childhood obesity have the greatest impact.

“We have already committed to restricting HFSS adverts on television before 9pm. But we also need to go further and address how children can be influenced online, where they are spending more and more of their time.

“This is part of a package of measures to help families. We want to support people of all ages to make healthier choices.”

Further advertising restrictions are said to be widely supported by the public, with polling from 2019 suggesting nearly three quarters backed a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts during popular family TV shows, with nearly 70% backing a similar watershed period online.

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