Cancer Research UK urges Ofcom to tighten junk food ad rules to halt obesity crisis

At the moment, Ofcom has a blanket ban in place on junk food ads around children’s TV programming

Cancer Research UK has tightened the screw on Ofcom, imploring the TV regulator to harden “out of date” regulations around when ads promoting junk food can be broadcast.

The charity is putting pressure on Ofcom following research which showed that teenagers who watch more than three hours of commercial TV per-week were likely to consume as many as 500 extra snacks - like crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks - over the course of a year, than those who didn't.

The report, supplemented by YouGov data from over 3,000 young people, detailed evidence to suggest there was a link between ads for foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) and unhealthy eating in teenagers.

When it came to ad-funded streaming platforms, like on-demand services, those aged 11 to 19 were found to by 139% more likely to drink fizzy drinks and 65% more likely to eat ready meals than those who streamed less commercial TV.

Citing the findings, Cancer Research UK, which claimed obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK after smoking, is calling on Ofcom to reconsider current guidelines.

At the moment, Ofcom has a blanket ban in place on junk food ads around children’s TV programming or any show where 75% of the audience will be aged 16-and-under.

However, Dr Jyotsna Vohra, a lead author on the study from Cancer Research UK, said of the report: “This is the strongest evidence yet that junk food ads could increase how much teens choose to eat. We’re not claiming that every teenager who watches commercial TV will gorge on junk food but this research suggests there is a strong association between advertisements and eating habits.”

“It’s been 10 years since the first, and only, TV junk food marketing regulations were introduced by Ofcom and they’re seriously out of date. Ofcom must stop junk food adverts being shown during programmes that are popular with young people, such as talent shows and football matches, where there’s currently no regulation.

“Our report suggests that reducing junk food TV marketing could help to halt the obesity crisis.”

Wheen 11 to 19-year-olds watched TV free from ads researcher found no link between screen time and the likelihood of eating unhealthy food.

An Ofcom spokesperson said: “The protection of children is a primary concern for Ofcom. We have banned ads for foods that are HFSS from being shown around programmes with particular appeal to children, which led to a 37% reduction in their exposure to these types of adverts.

“We support the advertising regulator’s current work in this area and look forward to discussing today’s findings with Cancer Research UK.”

In 2016, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) banned online ads aimed at children that were designed to promote food and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar.

These rules apply across all non-broadcast media including print, cinema as well as online and in social media, which the group said was "crucial". CAP also asserted its restrictions would apply to all other media where under-16s made up a quarter of the audience.

Cancer Research UK's call to action comes ahead of the introduction of a 'sugar tax' on soft drinks in the UK from April this year.

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