Amidst the current clamour for something to be done about UK obesity, there has been yet another call for greater curbs on food advertising. We report on this and the numerous other campaigners for ad. rule changes.
Who: The Consumers' Association, The Food Standards Agency, Sustain, Ofcom, The Department for Culture Media and Sport and The Department of Health
Where: The UK
When: January – March 2004
It started with concerns over "junk food" advertising to children, but the current cacophony of demands for further controls on advertising and labelling of food now extends to all generations.
There are some disturbing statistics around. One indicates that 95% of food advertising targeted at children is for junk foods high in salt, sugar, fat or a cocktail of all three. Another indicates that 30% of deaths from coronary heart disease are believed to be due to diet, a third of all cancers are a result of poor diet and obesity is reducing life expectancy by an average of nine years.
In the face of these numbers it was hardly surprising that a year ago the House of Commons Parliamentary Health Select Committee announced it was setting up a new investigation into the health and economic costs of obesity.
Sustain heaves in
In July 2003 Sustain, a group representing public interest organisations across the country (www.sustainweb.org/labell_wp.asp) announced it had already had more than 80 signatories backing a campaign for a statutory ban on the advertising of fatty, salty and sugary foods during children's TV. By March 2004 it had submitted its formal report to the government, pushing for such a ban, with the backing of no less than 106 groups.
Under 5's ban and Ofcom
In November 2003, labour MP Debra Shipley got no less than 100 backers for her Private Members' Bill to ban unhealthy food and drink ads to the under 5s, and partly in response to this and other pressure points, Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, formally instructed Ofcom to look at the possibility of strengthening the existing Code on broadcast advertising of food to children.
A more recent speech by Tessa Jowell to an ISBA conference was seen as a fudge for not coming out with clear proposals for statutory bans on food ads to children, but the minister did not indicate she was retracting her instruction to Ofcom, whilst at the same time she told the industry that it had a chance to prevent tighter controls. It could do this by getting its own house in order, she said, and changing the slant and tack of its advertising of food to children.
White paper in the offing
Alongside these developments, Health Secretary John Reid announced in February 2004 the forthcoming publication in Summer 2004 of a White Paper on food and health and that it would deal with issues such as greater controls on food advertising, particularly to children, and food labelling.
As if this were not enough, two other bodies have thrown their hats into the ring. On 11th March 2004, the Food Standards Agency announced a "planned overhaul of food promotion to children."
The FSA described its proposals as "far reaching", but most said they fell far short of that.
On labelling, the FSA talked of "developing advice and guidelines for the food industry" on product labelling to enable consumers to identify more easily and accurately what are healthier options. This follows the governments' failed initiative to develop a universal logo to help consumers eat their daily five portions of fruit and veg, launched a year ago.
On adverting and marketing of food to children, the FSA called on celebrities to help redress the ad imbalance by promoting healthier food choices, particularly addressing its remarks to sports stars and sponsored events. The FSA also called for broadcasters to follow the BBC Worldwide initiative and increase the association between high profile characters and cartoons on TV and healthier foods. The FSA also advised Ofcom and the ad industry that action to address the imbalance in TV advertising of food to children was justified.
Code for tighter codes one assumes, but as the latter proposal was already very much under consideration by Ofcom, there seemed to be more window dressing than specifics here. Indeed the FSA almost admitted as much by promising that a more detailed action plan would be published for consultation.
…and the Consumers' Association
The Consumers' Association also recently put in its two pennyworth with the publication of a "Health warning to the government."
The warning expressed frustration at the lack of government action on food advertising. It was backed with research showing that 7 in 10 consumers thought the government should be doing more to promote what we should eat for a healthier diet. Two thirds of respondents also thought that supermarkets should take more responsibility for helping us eat healthily.
Backed by a threat that unless action is taken within just a month, the CA will start to "name and shame" food manufacturers who use bad marketing practices or misleading food labelling, the CA called for fast action on three specific points.
First, it wanted the government and Ofcom to commit to restricting advertising of all foods high in fat, sugar and salt during children's TV viewing times.
Secondly, it wanted the government to commit to setting up a "Nutrition Council". This would be made up of representatives across government and key stakeholders and experts.
Thirdly, it wanted the big four high street supermarkets to take the lead to develop a labelling scheme that helped consumers easily identify foods high in fat, sugar and salt. It suggested a traffic light system of red for high levels and green for low.
Why this matters:
The CA's proposals have been criticised for simply adding new layers of bureaucracy by way of the new proposed Nutrition Council and unfairly focusing the blame on supermarkets rather than manufacturers.
The FSA's proposals have also been criticised as lacking substance, but despite these criticisms, there is an ever-louder clamour for something to be done, and the classic position of advertising as the easy whipping boy in circumstances like this suggests that by the Summer of 2004 we will have firm proposals from at least Ofcom and The Department of Health for tighter controls on food advertising, particularly to children. Perhaps we face the imposition of these tighter controls, by way of the new Ofcom code of broadcast advertising, by the end of this year.