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Boris Johnson considers total ban on online junk food ads in bid to defuse obesity ‘time-bomb’

Ministers will consult on whether to ban online junk food ads outright. (PA)

5 min read

Ministers are considering an outright ban on advertising junk food online as part of a wide-ranging plan to tackle obesity in Britain.

The Government has confirmed it will legislate to outlaw TV and web adverts for food high in fat, sugar or salt before 9pm when children are most likely to see them.

But it will also look at going further, with a consultation on whether the online ban “should apply at all times of the day” in a bid to defuse what it calls a health “time bomb”.

Industry figures branded the move — which joins a host of proposals in a new anti-obesity strategy unveiled by the Government — “draconian” as the country’s economy recovers from the Covid-19 lockdown.

Public Health England says that almost two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese, with one in three children leaving primary school overweight or obese.

In measures aimed at cutting the £6bn pricetag to the NHS of treating obesity-related illnesses, the Government is proposing to end ‘buy one get one free’ deals for unhealthy food that is high in salt, sugar and fat, with such foods no longer able to be displayed in “prominent” store locations such as checkouts.

It will meanwhile order restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 staff to display calorie counts for their food, with the Government pointing to research suggesting people consume “around 200 more calories a day” eating out compared to eating at home. 

Charities supporting people with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia have warned that this measure in particular could set back recovery for people battling the conditions.

The Government is also planning to launch a consultation “before the end of the year” on whether or not to extend the calorie-counting measure to alcoholic drinks, with research estimating that booze consumption accounts for nearly 10% of all calories consumed by those who drink.


Alongside the crackdown, ministers are promising to boost NHS weight management services, with doctors encouraged to prescribe exercise, “offered incentives” for supporting people who are obese, and more staff given the opportunity to become “healthy weight coaches”.

The moves come after Boris Johnson said he had ditched his “libertarian” stance on regulating food after his own hospital admission for coronavirus. 

Being overweight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, research shows.

Launching the new plan, Boris Johnson said: “Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier.

“If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”

And Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Everyone knows how hard losing weight can be so we are taking bold action to help everyone who needs it. When you’re shopping for your family or out with friends, it’s only fair that you are given the right information about the food you’re eating to help people to make good decisions.

“To help support people we need to reduce unhelpful influences like promotions and adverts that affect what you buy and what you eat. Taken together, supported by an inspiring campaign and new smart tools, will get the country eating healthily and losing the pounds.

“We know obesity increases the risk of serious illness and death from coronavirus - so it’s vital we take action on obesity to protect the NHS and improve our nation’s health.”


But the planned crackdown has drawn criticism from some industry groups, with digital advertising trade body the IAB UK saying an “untargeted” ban would “disproportionately impact our world-leading digital ad industry at a crucial time of tentative economic recovery”.

The group said: “Banning all HFSS advertising online is a draconian and unexpected measure, which the Government has provided no evidence to support and that would put such ads on a par with cigarette advertising, which is banned (in all media). 

“Reducing obesity within the UK is an important priority, yet all the evidence we have suggests that online advertising has a negligible impact on obesity rates, with factors such as education and portion control understood to be significantly more effective in addressing the issue. 

“The Government’s own 2017 impact assessment showed that an online ‘watershed’ would reduce children’s calorie intake by a negligible 0.3 calories per day, and that the evidence of the impact of advertising on adults’ calorie consumption was at best ‘inconclusive’.”

The Food and Drink Federation branded the proposals “a terrible missed opportunity”. 

Tim Rycroft, the FDF’s chief operating officer, said: “The UK’s food and drink manufacturers and the half a million people we employ — so recently the heroes heralded by government for feeding the nation during the Covid crisis — will be reeling today from this punishing blow.”

And he added: “As the economy struggles to recover, new restrictions on promoting and advertising everyday food and drink will increase the price of food, reduce consumer choice and threaten jobs across the UK.”

However, Cancer Research UK said the anti-obesity represented a “landmark day for the nation's health".

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said: "Being overweight or obese puts people at risk of many diseases, including 13 different types of cancer, and disproportionately affects people from poorer backgrounds so the plan will hugely help to level-up the country and build a healthier population."

And doctors’ organisation the British Medical Association said it was “delighted to see that the Government has sat up and listened” to its warnings on the health impacts of being overweight.

"What we need now is for this strategy to be actioned as quickly as possible, with the promised expansion of NHS services delivered in full, with adequate resources and funding, to ensure that those struggling with their weight can get the support they need and deserve,” they said.

Labour said action on obesity was “long overdue”, with Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth warning: "We are now facing an obesity crisis.”

“Labour has demanded action including a ban on the sale of energy drinks to children, restrictions on junk food advertising to children, clear calorie and nutritional details on all food and drinks and the proper funding of public health services, such as weight management programmes,” the opposition frontbencher added.

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