Government delays bans on pre-watershed and online HFSS ads, citing cost-of-living crisis

Public health minister Maggie Throup insisted government still 'committed to doing everything we can to help people live healthier lives'.

HFSS foods: pre-watershed TV ad ban delayed for a year (Getty Images/carlosgaw)
HFSS foods: pre-watershed TV ad ban delayed for a year (Getty Images/carlosgaw)

The government has delayed its ban on TV ads for foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) before the 9pm watershed, citing the "unprecedented global economic situation" and saying it wanted to give the ad industry "more time to prepare for restrictions".

Rules governing pre-watershed TV, as well as paid-for online ads, for HFSS products were due to come into force in January 2023. That date has now been moved to January 2024.

Meanwhile, regulations banning multi-buy deals, such as so-called Bogofs (buy-one-get-one-free) and three-for-twos, were to be introduced in October. They have been put on hiatus for at least a year.

However, the government said a ban on unhealthy foods being prominently displayed in shops – such as at checkouts, entrances, aisle ends and "online equivalents" – will still go ahead in October.

It is also launching a consultation on HFSS TV and online advertising in the "coming weeks", news welcomed by industry bodies such as the Advertising Association and ISBA.

The ad industry has long been dubious about how restrictions would reduce childhood obesity, questioning the evidence that they would prove effective, especially when imposed in isolation. In spite of that opposition, Prime Minister Boris Johnson actively accelerated plans after being hospitalised with Covid, which he blamed partly on his weight. 

Health campaigners have reacted with anger and bemusement at the government's latest decision, questioning how delaying a ban on HFSS products designed to combat obesity among children would help consumers facing escalating costs.

TV chef and health campaigner Jamie Oliver was among those bemoaning the government's announcement. Posting on Twitter, he wrote: "This is a wasted opportunity and it starts to erode the whole obesity strategy – which at some point looked progressive and world leading written down, but is falling apart when it comes to acting on these policies."

But the Advertising Association welcomed the news, with director of public affairs Sue Eustace describing the delay as a "sensible decision at this time to allow the industry to work through with government the most successful way to tackle obesity".

She continued: "The industry is committed to tackling this issue in a way that recognises the cost of living crisis and pressures that everybody is facing currently. There are many ways that advertising can help achieve this ambition, not least through promoting active lifestyles such as The Daily Mile.

"We know from the evidence that an HFSS ad ban will not be the most effective route, and we welcome the opportunity to look again at this legislation and find the best way to a solution."

ISBA director general Phil Smith also welcomed the news, calling it an "acknowledgement of what we have been saying all along: that their timetable left business no time to adapt to the final shape of the rules, and was heightening uncertainty and threatening investment".

Smith continued: "At a time of low growth, it makes little to no sense to pile costs on advertising, an industry which is a key driver of Britain's economic success. With the UK in the grip of a cost of living crisis and with the spectre of rising inflation, we need a total focus on supporting our food manufacturing and broadcast industries to grow and invest.

"Britain's obesity crisis is a serious one, which needs serious solutions – on physical activity, food education, and tackling poverty. As we have done in the past, advertisers stand ready to work with government to play our part in tackling the actual root causes of the problem," he added.

The government said in a statement that the "delay to restrictions on multi-buy deals will allow the government to review and monitor the impact of the restrictions on the cost of living in light of an unprecedented global economic situation".

Julia Lopez, the media, data and digital minister, said that the government was still "determined to tackle childhood obesity and are working hard to improve young people's health, including by investing £550m of government and lottery cash to level up access to sport and physical activity right across the country".

She added: "We have listened to the concerns which have been raised and will not be bringing in restrictions on junk food advertising until confident that the time is right."

In spite of opposition from many in adland, some advertisers have taken it upon themselves to cease marketing food and drink to children, most notably FMCG giant Unilever, which announced its plans last month.

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