We love our junk food, though we’ve long known it’s not good for us and contributes to the obesity epidemic. When Covid came, we learned that the virus is more likely to make obese people sicker. For the UK, that created the opportunity for them to pass some of the toughest restrictions in the world on junk food ads aimed at kids. It seemed like a no-brainer, but here’s what we learned when we flew to Great Britain to find out more.
The food and beverage industry spends billions of dollars each year on ads targeting teens and featuring celebrities and social media influencers. More than 80% of the products are unhealthy, according to one study.
Sharyl (on-camera): Two thirds of adults here in England are overweight or obese, according to Britain’s National Health Service. As in the U.S., the trend starts early — and is growing. In England, more than 25% of kids aged 10 and 11 qualify as obese.
So in July 2020, Great Britain launched a new anti-obesity strategy, proposing some of the strictest advertising restrictions in the world: limits on where junk food can be displayed in stores, a ban on buy-one-get-one-free ads for junk food, a ban on junk food TV ads before 9 p.m., and a total ban on advertising junk food online to anyone.
Mimi Tatlow-Golden: And so the online one is particularly novel, and it's really, really exciting.
Mimi Tatlow-Golden studies the impact of junk food ads on kids at The Open University.
Tatlow-Golden: Because we all know that there's loads of advertising online, and that advertising, the whole advertising technology sort of ecosystem, is scraping people's data, using it to design advertising and target it more particularly at whoever might be vulnerable to it. So dialing down that advertising is really, really important. So the digital ban is for everybody. It's not just for kids.
Polling shows the British people widely support the idea of dialing back on junk food ads. And all of the restrictions were scheduled to be in effect in January this year. But
Tatlow-Golden: It’s now being paused. Depends who you ask what the reason for that might be. The government has said it's due to the cost-of-living crisis, and, you know, what they suggest might be the effect on advertisers and on people's purchasing.
Sharyl: How big of a battle has it been to fight I guess what we call the junk food industry?
Tatlow-Golden: I've got to say it's pretty, it's pretty tough going. And it goes on and on and on. And no matter what is proposed, they come back with something as yet another idea why this might not be a good idea.
The only provision that wasn’t put off is the one restricting where junk food and sugary drinks can be placed in stores. That took effect last October.
Tatlow-Golden: And, you know, the funny thing about it, Sharyl, is that when they're talking about what they do in terms of advertising, the industry tends to suggest that advertising isn't that effective. And yet, you know, we know they're spending billions on carrying out this kind of advertising. And they're not foolish.
The Food and Drink Federation in the UK pushed for and praised the delays in most of the ad restrictions. It says that by instituting them, “the Government’s own estimates suggest businesses across the country will be hit by costs of over 1 billion a year - while the measures are not expected to impact rates of obesity.”
Stella Creasy is a Member of Parliament and also supports the junk food ad limits.
Sharyl: A lot of junk food is very cheap. Not just easy to get, but inexpensive.
Stella Creasy: Yeah, and one of the things that we're looking at is the impact of sugar in the way that we look at the impact of carbon on our communities. The critical thing for me is that you can't do these things to people; you have to do them with people. You have to make it easier and cheaper for people to make those healthy choices. You know, in my community half the people are now living with a lifetime condition, whether it's something like diabetes or heart disease and cancer, and we know that diet is part of it. So for me, for governments to ignore that means they're ignoring the health outcomes of our local communities, and that's not right.
Britain’s rules to get tough on junk food ads now may be delayed until at least 2025.
Sharyl: These are said to be some of the strictest marketing restrictions in the world. Maybe the other side would say, “It's a free country. It's up to parents to monitor what their kids put in their mouth, what they even see online and on TV.” What would you say to that?
Tatlow-Golden: I would say it is up to parents, and it's up to parents to teach their children and for kids to learn. But I would say you need to create a level playing field. And you can't as a parent fight the might of the big food and marketing corporations. So I would say, sure, I'm not saying you can't manufacture that stuff. But if you're going to advertise it and become part of the lived experience of a family, then what you're doing is you're skewing the pitch, and you're saying, "You parents are not in charge. We're in charge; we're telling the kids what to love, and now you have to try and fight us." And that seems to me to be fundamentally unjust.
Sharyl (on-camera): Fast food chains alone are said to spend about $5 billion on advertising each year.