Health campaign groups call for halt on 'unhealthy' ads until end of lockdown

Action on Sugar and Action on Salt say certain brands are capitalising on government 'Stay home' message.

HFSS foods: campaign groups want brands to suspend ads until lockdown measures are lifted
HFSS foods: campaign groups want brands to suspend ads until lockdown measures are lifted

Action on Sugar and Action on Salt have called for the food and drink industry to voluntarily cease all advertising of "unhealthy" products – usually used to mean those classed as high in fat, sugar or salt – until 5 June in an open letter (full version below).

The bodies argue that the pandemic is having a "devastating effect" on people's future health prospects because many are being forced into poverty by the economic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.

They claimed that the lockdown period had seen certain food, drink, fast-food and delivery brands "capitalising on the government’s ‘Stay home’ message by heavily promoting unhealthy food, even to the most vulnerable members of society, who are now a captive audience with little opportunity to leave the house or to get much exercise".

Action on Sugar and Action on Salt called on British food and drink marketers to "unite in the interests of public health" and implement a moratorium on all "unhealthy" advertising until either 5 June or once all lockdown restrictions have been lifted.

"Brands that can afford to advertise generally have a wider portfolio of products, including those which are considered healthy, which could remain," the letter added.

The groups also commended the move by betting and gaming brands to stop TV and radio advertising, saying it demonstrates "some degree of moral fibre" – although, as Campaign revealed yesterday (Wednesday), the volume of online gambling ads in the UK has increased substantially in recent weeks.

Campaign understands that Action on Sugar and Action on Salt have yet to directly contact industry bodies such as the Food and Drink Federation or the Advertising Association.

James Barge, director of public policy at ISBA, said: "The most appropriate mechanism to mitigate and minimise the risk of harm to children from advertising is through the CAP and BCAP Codes, enforced by the ASA [Advertising Standards Association].

"Children’s exposure to HFSS advertising on TV has fallen by around 75% since 2005 and, even as we make greater use of online media, recent evidence shows that that reduction is not being undermined by exposure online. These are points we made clearly in response to the recent government consultation on HFSS advertising restrictions."

Barge insisted that the circumstances of the lockdown did not change the basis for ISBA's views and criticised the letter's comparison with the gambling sector.

"The current crisis in no way alters our view or justifies going over and above the proposals set out in that consultation," he added.

"Evidence is the only sustainable basis on which to build meaningful policy interventions. The need to maintain a rational, evidence-led debate is therefore hindered by suggestions such as this, which seek to limit adult freedom of choice by equating a legally restricted activity with food."

The letter in full

As the world remains gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, this is having a devasting effect, not only on people’s health now, but on their future health prospects too, as many are being forced into poverty.

Emerging scientific evidence from this pandemic shows that those from poorer backgrounds are being hit the hardest, and that nutritional deficiencies, obesity and related health conditions, which are strongly linked to social deprivation, could be risk factors for worse outcomes of Covid-19.

There is comprehensive evidence showing the harmful effect of unhealthy food and drink advertising. During lockdown, certain food companies, including big brands, fast-food and delivery businesses have been capitalising on the government’s ‘stay home’ message by heavily promoting unhealthy food, even to the most vulnerable members of society, who are now a captive audience with little opportunity to leave the house or to get much exercise.

Last week, the UK’s biggest betting and gaming companies showed some degree of moral fibre by agreeing to stop advertising their products on both TV and radio during the lockdown, in a bid to reduce exposure to those at risk of addiction.

In this spirit, Action on Sugar and Action on Salt are calling for the British food and drink industry to unite in the interests of public health and, through a voluntary "moratorium", remove all forms of unhealthy advertising across all media platforms until the 5 June – or until all lockdown restrictions have been lifted. Brands that can afford to advertise generally have a wider portfolio of products, including those which are considered healthy, which could remain.

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are widely regarded as two of the nation's most pressing public-health issues, yet the promotion of unhealthy food, although acknowledged as an important issue by the government, continues unabated, with little or no regard to the damaging effect this is having on people’s long-term health (and wallets).

Surely, we must do everything we can to put the nation’s health first, and if not during a pandemic, then when?

Katharine Jenner
Campaign director, Action on Sugar and Action on Salt

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