New rules intended to limit children’s exposure to television advertising for food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) are due to be introduced this month. The move, which follows extensive public consultation, represents a compromise between the competing views of the food industry and public health campaigners. The Office of Communication (Ofcom) expressly rejected calls for a ban on such advertising before 9pm, stating that this would be a disproportionate approach.

Under the new rules the advertising of HFSS products will be banned both during and between programmes of particular appeal to children under the age of 16, no matter what time of day or night such programmes are broadcast. Adult programmes that attract a ‘significantly higher than average proportion of viewers under the age of 16’ will also be affected.What is deemed a HFSS product will rest on the application of the Food Standards Agency’s nutrient profiling scheme. The scheduling rules are due to come into effect from 1 April 2007, although dedicated children’s channels will be allowed a graduated phase-in period to the end of December 2008 for full implementation.

The inclusion of children aged 9 to 16 within the scope of the scheduling rules is a surprise; previously the rules were only intended to limit exposure of HFSS advertising to children under 9, and it had been anticipated that this would remain the case. The proposal to include children up to 16 has a greater reach in terms of broadcasters and programmes affected. In particular, the proposal will prevent programmes on a number of music channels from carrying advertisements or sponsorship for HFSS products, reducing their total revenues by an estimated £2.4m per year.

Further to the above, the use of celebrities and characters licensed from third parties that are popular with children (such as cartoon characters), promotional claims (such as free gifts), and health or nutrition claims will also be banned from advertisements aimed at primary school children. These content restrictions are expected to take effect for new advertising campaigns before the end of January.

Advertising campaigns that are existing ‘or in the final stages of creative execution’ at the end of January 2007 will not be affected until the end of June 2007, at which point all advertising would need to be compliant. Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards has said that the regulator ‘will look to advertisers and broadcasters to follow both the spirit as well as the letter of the rules.’ Ofcom estimates that the new measures will reduce a child’s exposure to HFSS TV advertising by 41 per cent in an average household. Broadcasters such as ITV are estimated to lose up to 0.7 per cent of their total revenues once the rules are implemented, while dedicated digital or satellite children’s channels could lose up to 15 per cent. Significantly, the restrictions, which will apply to all broadcasters licensed by Ofcom and based in the UK, will also apply to product sponsorship.

Meanwhile, some MEPs are calling for EU-wide measures to restrict television adverts for HFSS products during children’s programming and at other times when they watch in large numbers. They argue that such restrictions should be drafted into the Advertising without Frontiers Directive, which is currently under revision.