The Department of Health and Social Care, and Department for Digital has opened a public consultation into further advertising restrictions for products that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), which the UK government committed to in its Plan for Action on Childhood Obesity (published in June 2018). The main proposal is for a ban on HFSS advertising in all broadcast media or online from 5.30am to 9pm. This would build upon the ban in the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) Advertising Code, which has banned HFSS advertising around programming commissioned for, or likely to appeal particularly to, children since 2007. However, the consultation is separate to the BCAP and Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) industry-driven reviews on HFSS advertising, for which the outcomes are still pending.

The policy context paints a fairly stark picture of childhood obesity. According to the consultation paper:

  • one in five children are obese or overweight by the time they start primary school
  • it is estimated that obesity-related conditions are currently costing the National Health Service (NHS) GBP 6.1 billion per year
  • children's viewing of broadcast and online programs peaks from 6pm to 9pm, during which they are unlikely to watch children's programming.

The consultation paper proposed an alternative to the watershed, being a 'ladder system' to determine which products can and cannot be advertised between 5.30am and 9pm. The idea would be to reward companies that are reformulating their products, or already have healthier options on the market, with more advertising freedom during this period.

Further, there are concerns regarding current online marketing practices, as children spend more time online without authoritative ways for online advertisers to establish the ages of their audience. In addition, whilst broadcast TV advertising is easily identifiable (as Ofcom requires broadcasters to ensure that editorial content is distinct from advertising), the online advertising landscape is complex, with advertising and content often co-mingled. The Government has also recently published an Online Harms White Paper, which sets out new requirements for online platforms to take more responsibility for the safety of their users.

The public consultation closes on 10 June 2019 and submissions can be made here.