UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Tollgate Medical Centre in Becton, the UK, on July 27 2020. Picture: EVENING STANDARD/JEREMY SELWYN
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Tollgate Medical Centre in Becton, the UK, on July 27 2020. Picture: EVENING STANDARD/JEREMY SELWYN

London — The UK proposed strict new limits on junk food advertising as ministers seek to control the country’s growing obesity problem, which has been identified as a factor in coronavirus deaths.

Plans include banning TV and online advertising of foods high in fat, sugar or salt before 9pm, the health & social care department said on Monday. Advertisers and the food and drink industry criticised the proposals, saying they would push up prices and threaten jobs.

“Losing weight is hard, but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement. “If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks.”

The curbs mark a change of tack for Johnson, who has previously complained about “nanny state” meddling in the lives of ordinary people. But the pandemic and his own hospitalisation in April persuaded him of the need to act on obesity.

Almost two-thirds of British adults are overweight and one in three children leave primary school weighing too much, according to the health department. Being too heavy also puts people at greater risk from coronavirus and places additional strain on the National Health Service (NHS).

Blanket online ban?

The government will also end buy-one-get-one-free promotions on sugary foods and require calorie labels on more products in stores as well as in restaurants. It has starting a consultation on putting calorie counts on alcoholic beverages. Ministers said they will also consider imposing a blanket ban on junk food advertising online, before introducing the new laws.

The restrictions will pile more pressure on food, retail, advertising and media industries already suffering from the economic lockdown imposed to control the coronavirus pandemic, with thousands of jobs under threat.

The Food and Drink Federation slammed the proposals, saying they will have a negligible effect on reducing calorie consumption while pushing up prices for consumers and threatening jobs. It said the measures could add £600 a year to the cost of a typical family’s grocery shopping.

“It is extraordinary that the government is proposing a ban on promotions of food and drink in retail at such a precarious economic time,” the federation’s COO, Tim Rycroft, said in a statement. “At the heart of this programme are old and discredited policies that will raise prices, limit choice and hit two of the UK’s most successful industries.”

‘Slap in the face’

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers called the announcement a “slap in the face” that “will cost families more at the checkout”.

The society has previously estimated a TV watershed on junk food adverts could cost the economy more than £1bn. That is based on the government’s pre-pandemic estimate that it would cost the advertising industry £171m, and society’s estimate that every pound spent on advertising brings a £6 benefit to the economy.

But health campaigners said the government should have gone further.

“It’s a missed opportunity that mandatory targets for reformulation that is removing unnecessary calories, sugar and salt from products have been excluded,” Action on Sugar and Action on Salt campaign director Katharine Jenner said in a statement.

The new policies will mean “businesses will be responsible and we may well see ingredients in food changing to make them healthier,” health minister Helen Whately told the BBC on Monday.

Britain has a tax on sugar to try to reduce obesity levels, and there are already restrictions on how unhealthy foods are targeted at children. Since 2007, broadcasters cannot advertise products such as confectionery during TV programmes that might be watched by children. There are similar restrictions for advertising online, in print and in cinemas.

Bloomberg