Industry-led regulations that are supposed to reduce exposure to junk food marketing are a “shocking sham”, according to advertising executive turned health campaigner Dan Parker.
The advertising of unhealthy food is currently self-regulated by the Committee of Advertising Practice. The rules state that brands are not permitted to market products high in fat, salt and sugar during any programme where 75% of the audience is under-16.
Last year, the rules were expanded and updated to cover non-broadcast media, including online. Another review is currently underway.
Health campaigners have long argued that the code is full of loopholes. Children are still being bombarded by ads for unhealthy food and drink, they say, which is fuelling obesity.
Pressure is mounting on government to act and new restrictions are reportedly under consideration as part of a review of the childhood obesity strategy. The plan, published in August 2016, failed to introduce any new restrictions on advertising.
An inquiry by the health and social committee is looking at the progress on obesity since the strategy was launched and the priorities for government.
In an evidence session this week, reported in the Telegraph, Parker said the current rules on junk food advertising don’t cover the most popular websites.
“We need to stop all forms of marketing of junk foods to our children in whatever form it is,” he told MPs. “This code does not include Google or any other search engines. It does not include YouTube. It does not include Facebook or Twitter. If you take the list of the top 50 websites in the UK, not one of them is covered by this code. It is a shocking sham, the whole piece of regulation,” he added.
Industry leaders maintained that the rules are amongst the strictest in the world. They also denied that advertising has any role in childhood obesity. The Food and Drink Federation urged the government to avoid “headline-chasing measures”.
The Advertising Association also warned that further restrictions could result in job losses.