Over-fed before the watershed: Should junk food advertising be limited?

A House of Commons select committee has published a report calling for a complete ban on junk food adverts before the 9pm watershed.

As part of the fight against childhood obesity, television adverts promoting foods that are low in nutritional value would be banned during family shows such as The X Factor and The Simpsons.

Weighing in on the debate, Wales’ Minister for Health, Mark Drakeford, along with ministers from Scotland, has written to the UK government calling for an ‘immediate extension’ to current Ofcom a regulations on junk food. Asked what such measures would mean for the public health, Drakeford said: ‘This, I believe, could be a key contributor to improving the diets of children and young people across the UK.”

The report comes almost ten years after the move by Ofcom to ban junk food adverts for any programme that has an ‘above average’ appeal to under 16 year-olds, and recommends that the government take ‘brave and bold’ action to curb the child obesity crisis that costs the NHS an estimated £1.5bn a year. It is argued that the current ban misses a large proportion of television programmes that are watched by children, but not necessarily considered children’s programming.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, Chair of the committee, noted: “One third of children leaving primary school are overweight or obese, and the most deprived children are twice as likely to be obese than the least deprived”.

As well as the recommended ban on adverts, the report also calls for the introduction of a sugar tax of 20 per cent on full sugar drinks that could raise £1bn to tackle childhood obesity. Public support for the sugar tax was kick-started by Jamie Oliver’s documentary ‘Jamie’s Sugar Rush’ which aired earlier this year. The petition that accompanied the programme has since amassed over 150,000 signatures.

David Cameron has previously vetoed the proposal of a sugar tax, and was quoted in The Independent in October 2015 as saying that there are ‘more effective ways of tackling’ childhood obesity.

It is worth wondering whether these calls for change have come too late. In such a media-saturated age, some campaigners have argued that controls need to extend to social media channels such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. This concern is reflected in the figures released by the Advertising Standards Agency which received 13,477 about digital ads in 2014, surpassing the complaints made against television adverts for the first time ever.

Amongst my housemates, the general consensus is that whilst junk food ads might put the idea in your head, there is still a degree of accountability for what you choose to eat. These adverts are undoubtedly a problem, however parents are ultimately responsible for what they feed their children, so banning adverts and imposing taxes only fixes half the problem.

Whether it is the fault of irresponsible marketing agencies or lax parenting, childhood obesity remains a growing epidemic in the UK, and it remains to be seen whether the government will take heed of such warnings.

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