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UK 'junk food' ad ban: IAB, Advertising Association and Action on Sugar debate proposals

As the UK government accelerates proposals to ban so-called junk food advertising on TV before 9pm, and considers completely outlawing such ads online, The Drum brought together three keenly interested parties – representing Action on Sugar, the Advertising Association and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) – to debate the merits of the plans.

“We have to face the fact that unhealthy food is now the biggest cause of death in the world and the UK [and] a major factor in causing obesity,” said professor Graham MacGregor, chair of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, when asked about proposals that have united advertising trade bodies in revolt.

Stating his desire that unhealthy foods were banned all together, MacGregor explained his disappointment that the government had not gone to that extreme, highlighting the additional risks that Covid-19 poses too.

“It’s become quite clear that if you’re even slightly overweight… you’re greatly at increased risk of susceptibility to Covid-19… and the more obese you are the more likely to are to die."

Sue Eustace, director of public affairs at the Advertising Association, agreed that the advertising sector recognised the issues faced around obesity, including the heightened risks caused by the virus. But she insisted that banning advertising was not the best way to tackle this problem.

“Some of the things that have been announced are really helpful, it’s important that people lead a healthy lifestyle, exercise and have a balanced intake of food, but we are hugely disappointed that the headline measures are measures that aren’t going to work by the government’s own analysis," Eustace said.

She cited the government’s impact assessment which earlier this year claimed that introducing a pre-9pm watershed ban would only lessen children’s calorie intake by 1.7 calories a day. “Considering the wide impact that that will have on broadcasting, production and the creative industries in general, and the jobs at stake, we question whether this is a sensible and proportionate measure.”

Eustace stressed the association’s belief that the government should produce “a range of measures that are targeted and proven to be affective.”

Meanwhile, Matt Evans, head of corporate affairs at the Advertising Association, revealed that there has been little communication from government around the measures and that the proposal of a total ban was “surprising”.

He went on: “It’s important to reflect that there are a myriad different things that affect obesity in this country; deprivation is a factor that needs to be recognised, and perhaps hasn’t been until now. Obesity rates in the poorest boroughs of the UK, for example Kingston Upon Hull, is double that of some of the richest. And with advertising being very visible ... it’s easier to find fault than reflect on what the government could have done itself to change policy in society.”

Meanwhile, John Mew, chief executive of the IAB UK, questioned the rationality of the proposals, but agreed that the science did present a problem for the country around obesity.

“The timing of this could not be worse,” he stated of the negative impact the restrictions would have on the advertising sector. “There has never been a worse point in the history of our industry right now, so to take away another major revenue stream when the government have admitted it won’t make any difference to what it is trying to achieve seems daft.”

Watch the full discussion around the impact of the obesity proposals, chaired by The Drum’s executive editor, Stephen Lepitak, on the video above.

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