As phase two of the UK's new rules on TV advertising of unhealthy foods targeted at children came into effect this week, the food industry is preparing to lock horns with campaigners over a 9pm watershed.
The first phase of the restrictions, relating to advertising of high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods around programmes aimed at the under-10s came into force last April. The second stage, prohibiting such advertisements in or around programmes made for children (including pre-school children), or in or around programmes that are likely to be of particular appeal to children aged four to 15, came into force on January 1. The new rules, which were drawn up by communications regulator Ofcom, were conceived as part of an effort to stem the tide of childhood obesity in the country. The Department of Health flags statistics from the 2005 Health Survey for England, which found that 18 per cent of boys and 18 per cent of girls aged between two and 5 in England were classified obese in 2005 (body mass index over 30) - an increase from 11 per cent and 12 per cent for boys and girls respectively in 1995. Both the Food and Drink Federation and the Advertising Association, while having held out against the new rules at the time they were proposed, declined to comment on the effect of this week's new restrictions for the food industry since the measures were agreed over a year ago. Rather, a spokesperson for the Advertising Association told FoodNavigator.com that the new battle is to prevent the imposition of a 9pm watershed on advertising foods deemed to be unhealthy. Such a watershed has recently been proposed by some campaigners in the past year. For instance, in November consumer watchdog Which? called for a watershed when it published the results of a survey in which it looked at viewing figures to ascertain the most popular programmes with children and the food adverts positioned around them. It said that the most popular programmes with kids are not aimed at their age-group, and thus current regulations restricting the exhibition of adverts for high fat, sugar and salt foods (HFSS) around programmes made for the under-10s are ineffectual.
But Julien Hunt, marketing director for the FDF, responded at that time by saying that even the first phase of the regulations made the UK is now one of the most heavily regulated markets in Europe. "The new rules should be given time to take effect," he said. "Calls for bans on advertising around programme popular with families are completely premature." A 9pm watershed is already in place for television content containing scenes of a violent or sexual nature. A food advertising watershed has not been proposed by regulators, but as agreed in October 2005, a review of the impact of the existing rules on HFSS advertising aimed at children is expected to take place later this year. This review is expected to investigate how the nutrient profiling model, under which foods that may be advertised are determined, works in practice. It will also consider changes in foods advertised to children and the views of all interested parties. A recent report from the Advertising Association showed that there has been a shift in the nature of food advertising on television in the last three years away from HFSS foods, and manufacturers have been reformulating products to give them a healthier profile. The amount of food and drink ads seen by children under 16 across all content and commercial TV channels was seen to have declined by almost 22 per cent from 2003 to 2006, whilst children under 10 watched almost 26 per cent less in 2006. The association said that in the first seven weeks of the under-10s restrictions, there was a decrease of nearly a third in comparison with the previous year.
The spokesperson said that this shift has been partly due to the new restrictions and partly because food and beverage companies are taking the responsibility for marketing healthier products upon themselves. Indeed the Advertising Association's drive is in the direction of self-regulation, rather than the imposition of new regulations. "It is right and proper that the advertising industry should demonstrate that the industry is responding in a proactive and responsible way to social issues and problems, based on an effective self-regulatory system. "It is right too that the advertising industry must come to a quick decision over how to regulate new media as technological advances, digitisation and the convergence of media will change the nature of advertising," said Baroness Peta Buscombe, chief executive of the Advertising Association. "The future solution too must be better self-regulation and restraint by the advertising industry and not unwelcome and restrictive legislation." Baroness Buscombe also said that the issue of food advertising and obesity must be seen in a wider context. Ofcom's 2004 report on TV advertising of food and drink to children concluded that food advertising has "modest direct effect" - around two per cent - on children's food choices. While the indirect effects could be larger, there was insufficient evidence to quantify the indirect effect of TV advertising on children's food preferences, consumption and behaviour by comparison with other factors like exercise, portion size, peer pressure, family eating habits, school policy and food labelling.
"Advertising is an easy and eye catching target, but advertising bans have unintended consequences and won't tackle the root causes of the problem of obesity," said Baroness Buscombe.