UK defers junk food deals, advertisement restrictions

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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Own- and Princes-brand tinned ham and salt beef at a Tesco in Sheringham, England on February 3, 2022.
Image: User:Kolforn.

The United Kingdom Department of Health and Social Care on Friday postponed restrictions on multibuy promotional deals and online and TV advertising for junk food products by one year.

The deferral affects a ban on deals incentivising multiple purchases of foods high in fat, salt or sugar, including buy one, get one free and complimentary refills for soft drinks, and on paid TV advertisements before 9pm and online.

A Department press release attributes the delay to the "unprecedented global economic situation", and states that it is hoped postponing restrictions will give businesses "more time to prepare for the restrictions on advertising", and allow the government to "review and monitor the impact" of the multibuy ban. It said: "Economies across the world have been affected by higher than expected global energy and goods prices, leading to increased costs across supply chains which are affecting both businesses and consumers."

The delay of the ban on multibuy deals would last until October 2023. Due to delays in implementing the Health and Care Bill 2021, the advertising ban is postponed until January 2024. Restrictions on the placement of such products in stores, at checkouts and on supermarket websites and apps will enter into force from October 2022, as planned.

Campaigner and chef Jamie Oliver called it "a wasted opportunity" that "starts to erode the whole obesity strategy". He urged "real leadership" from Prime Minister Boris Johnson "to give young people a healthier and fairer future".

Oliver was joined by Barbara Crowther of the Children's Food Campaign and Graham MacGregor, cardiologist and campaigner at Queen Mary University of London.

Whilst Public Health Minister Maggie Throup said "we're committed to doing everything we can to help people live healthier lives", her Labour counterpart Andrew Gwynne called it a reversal.

An NHS breast screening mobile unit in Manchester on June 25, 2011. Analysis by Macmillan Cancer Support Wednesday indicated that at present rates, the NHS cancer treatment backlog in England wouldn't be cleared until September 2027.
Image: Mikey.

The press release read: "Addressing obesity remains a priority for government, and will reduce the strain put on the NHS as it works to tackle the COVID-19 backlogs." Media, Data and Digital Minister Julia Lopez cited spending £550 million "to level up access to sport and physical activity right across the country" as evidence of determination "to tackle childhood obesity".

Gwynne argued: "Johnson’s desperation to cling onto his job means the ideology of Conservative MPs is being placed above children’s health [...] Instead of cutting childhood obesity, preventing ill-health and easing pressure on the NHS, this chaotic government is performing another U-turn."

The Independent wrote of backbench Conservative MPs having reportedly criticised the deal as evidence of a "nanny state".

Johnson is reported to have made the decision after leading a ministerial meeting on the cost of living Wednesday. The Times reported ministers told him of the cost the bans would have on the food and advertisement agencies. Further, The Guardian and The Independent wrote of rumours the government could simply axe the restrictions, some of the toughest in the world. MacGregor said "Johnson could have left a legacy of being the first prime minister to address obesity in a meaningful way", but "he has given in to his own MPs, and an aggressive food industry, who, ironically, were starting to comply".

When first announced in November 2020, 800 food and drink manufacturers, including Britvic and Kellogg's, called the ban on junk food advertising "disproportionate", adding "the evidence base underpinning these proposals is lacking in both detail and efficacy". Kellogg's last month sued the government over the restrictions on product placement in prime locations in stores.

The Food and Drink Federation said the delay "makes sense" in response to "high inflation", though the Children's Food Campaign argues multibuy deals do not save consumers money, but instead increase junk food purchases. Figures published on Friday indicate two in five Britons are buying less food as the Bank of England warns inflation could top 10% this year.

The press release promised a public consultation on TV and paid-for online adverts in the next weeks.

Broadcasters could lose over £200 million in annual revenue if the ban on junk food advertising past watershed hours goes ahead.

The government touted its calorie labelling laws passed last month, and measures taken to help alleviate the cost of living. The Department also promised the publication of a Health Disparities white paper and launch of a Better Health: Rewards scheme to address obesity.

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