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Ban junk food advertising during family TV shows, say MPs

Published 30/11/2015

The Commons health committee called on the Government to take
The Commons health committee called on the Government to take "ambitious" action on tackling the obesity crisis

Advertising unhealthy foods during family TV shows should be banned, MPs have said, as they called on the Government to introduce a "sugar tax" on soft drinks.

In a wide-ranging report, members of the Commons health committee said the Government must not "take the easy option of relying on health education campaigns" and promoting exercise to solve the UK's obesity crisis.

Instead, they said something "far more ambitious" was needed, calling for Jamie Oliver-style graphic warnings on the side of fizzy drinks saying how many spoonfuls of sugar a single serving contains.

Furthermore, a 20% tax on full sugar soft drinks should be introduced, with all the money raised spent on preventing childhood obesity.

Oliver is taking part in a discussion at parliament, designed to coincide with the publication of the committee's report, ahead of a debate on a tax for sugary drinks.

The chef will join Helen Jones, chairman of the petitions committee, and Dr Sarah Wollaston, chairman of the health committee.

Other recommendations in the report include a ban on unhealthy food advertising before the 9pm watershed during TV programmes enjoyed by families, such as the X Factor.

Buy-one-get-one-free and other deals on unhealthy foods in supermarkets should also face "strong controls", with an outright ban on supermarkets placing sweets and other less healthy foods at the ends of aisles and checkouts.

New guidelines must also be drawn up on what constitutes a healthy school packed lunch, with teachers able to guide those parents who continue to give their children unhealthy foods.

The use of cartoon characters and celebrities in children's advertising should also face tighter restrictions, while rules that claim a breakfast cereal which is 22.5% sugar is not a high sugar food must be changed, the report said.

While the food industry should be invited to join voluntary "reformulation" schemes to drive down the amount of sugar or fat in their foods, it must be made clear that a failure to comply would lead to enforced regulation, the MPs added.

The new report follows a row between the health committee, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Public Health England (PHE) about recommendations in a PHE report suggesting a sugar tax be introduced.

PHE originally refused to publish its report proposing a sugar tax until the Government published its own strategy next year, but reversed that decision in the face of mounting pressure.

Prime Minister David Cameron is known not to be in favour of a sugar tax.

In the new report, MPs said they agreed with the PHE study that there must be " broader and deeper controls on advertising and marketing to children".

They said: "In our view, a logical way to do this would be by restricting all advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods and drinks to after the 9pm watershed.

"We also endorse Public Health England's recommendation of extending current restrictions on advertising to apply across all other forms of broadcast media, social media and advertising, including in cinemas, on posters, in print, online and advergames."

The MPs also called for smaller portion sizes, saying they are becoming "larger and larger", for example the introduction of "bottomless cups" in restaurants.

New figures last week showed a third of 10 and 11-year-olds in England are overweight or obese, although obesity among younger children is falling.

Sugar-sweetened drinks currently for 29% of sugar intake among children aged 11 to 18, and around 16% for younger children.

Treating obesity and its consequences currently costs the NHS £5.1 billion every year.

Chair of the health committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, a GP, said: "We believe that if the Government fails to act, the problem will become far worse. A full package of bold measures is required and should be implemented as soon as possible.

"We believe that a sugary drinks tax should be included in these measures with all proceeds clearly directed to improving our children's health."

A coalition of almost 20 groups has also been formed to demand a 20% sugar tax and further action. Members include the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the British Heart Foundation, the British Medical Association, C ancer Research UK and the Faculty of Public Health.

Kawther Hashem, nutritionist and researcher at the campaign group Action on Sugar, said: "Parents and children are currently drowning in a world full of aggressively marketed and promoted sugary foods and drinks.

"It is high time the Government took responsibility for the health of the nation and set sugar reduction targets and rules on all forms marketing and promotion of unhealthy foods and drinks."

Chris Askew, chief executive of Diabetes UK, said: " We support calls to introduce a tax on drinks high in sugar, reducing and rebalancing the number and type of the price promotions on unhealthy foods and setting national standards for healthy foods in the public sector.

"The Government should also continue to invest in educating the public about healthy living and making it easier for people to be more physically active."

Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, described the report as a " breath of fresh air".

He said: "If the Government follows this, we will be strides ahead in solving the obesity problem."

A Populus poll for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) found only four in 10 Britons think introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks would be effective in tackling obesity.

Ian Wright, director general of the FDF, said: "Instead of presuming to speak for the British public as some health campaigners have done, we've asked consumers directly whether they think a sugar tax would be effective at tackling obesity.

"The public's instincts mirror what the facts are telling us - that there isn't evidence that a tax would make any difference to obesity. Last month, Public Health England, which called for a new tax on top of the 20% VAT charged on soft drinks, conceded that there was no long-term data showing it would work.

"The causes of the obesity challenge we face in this country are far more complicated than any single ingredient, food or drink.

"We need to follow the evidence, and help people to improve their overall diets and become more active. Food and drink companies are already playing their part by adapting recipes and limiting portion size, and are willing and ready to do more."

Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, said: "This was not an inquiry in the conventional meaning of the word. It was part of the PR campaign by the health lobby to persuade ministers to introduce a tax on soft drinks.

"By its own admission, the Health Select Committee is merely proposing this tax because it's easy to do yet there is no evidence worldwide that such a tax has an effect on obesity.

"In fact, evidence from one of the most comprehensive studies into tackling obesity, the McKinsey Global Institute 2014 report, found that a tax would be much less effective than reducing portion sizes and reformulating products.

"Our industry has led the way in both of these areas and has reduced calorie intake from soft drinks by 11% in just four years."

Downing Street said that David Cameron had already made clear he did not think a tax on sugary drinks was "the right course of action".

A Number 10 spokesman said: "We will be bringing forward our national childhood obesity strategy in the New Year, which will set out the measures we wish to take forward to tackle this problem."

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