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Children and health organisations urge Prime Minister to restrict online junk food adverts

Sustain and the Children's Food Campaign have joined 97 UK health and children’s organisations, academic experts and individual campaigners in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to encourage him to move ahead with landmark plans to remove junk food adverts from online platforms and social media.

Obesity Health Alliance

Obesity Health Alliance

Following reports in the press that the Government is still deliberating over its promised plans to place new restrictions on online advertising of junk food, health and children's organisations have written to Boris Johnson to warn of the potential risks of undermining his new flagship obesity strategy, before it has even had a chance to work.

The full letter, which was co-ordinated by the Obesity Health Alliance, is signed by 97 health, medical and children's organisations, local directors of public health, leading nutritionists and academics, and high profile figures from the food industry including Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Thomasina Miers and Dr Chris van Tulleken. 

The letter was covered over the Easter weekend in The Times and the i newspaper and the full text is below.

 

Our letter in full

Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP
Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service
10 Downing Street
London, SW1A 2AA

Dear Prime Minister,

We write to you as representatives of health and children’s organisations, health practitioners, academic experts, and campaigners in public health to strongly encourage you to forge ahead with landmark proposals to end almost all unhealthy food and drink adverts online, which will protect children from the influence of junk food marketing.

As we emerge from the second devastating wave of COVID-19, two things are clear to us. Firstly, the UK’s disease and death toll has been exacerbated by high rates of obesity and ill health directly caused by poor diet, causing untold suffering to thousands of families, and putting extreme strain on the NHS. A recent study of nearly 7million UK patients found a direct linear relationship with BMI and hospitalisation and death (with a particularly marked effect in younger people), making it clear that this is a problem of excess weight, not just obesity[1]. Secondly, we are now at a crossroads, where we can either build on what we have learnt from the pandemic or go back to the status quo ante where poor diet and related ill-health is increasingly the norm and will pose even greater risks for population health and resilience in the future. While the immediate threat of COVID-19 may subside, weight related illness and its subsequent impact on society and the economy will remain until we effectively address obesity.

Landmark policies
When you launched ‘Tackling Obesity’ in July 2020, we were strongly encouraged by a comprehensive plan with commendable landmark, evidence-based policies to curb the flood of high fat, sugar and salt food and drink marketing on TV, online and in shops. This package of measures is supported by us all and welcomed by the public – with 74% of people supporting government action to reduce obesity[2]. Restrictions on advertising have been backed by the Health Select Committee and welcomed in part 1 of the National Food Strategy.  If these policies are aligned and implemented fully, they will be important steps on the road back to better health for our children and bring benefits to the wider population too.

Sector growth
There is well-documented evidence that the public has been eating more snacks and take-away food in the last year, and that is borne out by sales figures showing substantial growth of these sectors.

We understand there are concerns from the parts of industry most affected by these proposals. It is fair to examine the feasibility and impact of exempting small, independent businesses from the online restrictions, or products that do not contribute significantly to child obesity for example. However, the majority of digital advertising spend originates from larger retailers, delivery platforms and multinational brands. This is where the focus of restrictions should rightly be.

Advertising works. It increases sales of the product concerned and of products in the same category. That’s why companies spend millions on it every year and it’s simply disingenuous for them to suggest otherwise. While one doughnut every now and again is unlikely to significantly affect energy consumption, advertising directly shapes the wider social and cultural norms around food preferences and dietary patterns and children (and adults) are deluged with marketing that is skewed towards the least healthy options. Dev Sharma, a 15-year-old Youth Board member of BiteBack 2030 told us, “The food companies say they don’t target children. But me and my friends feel bombarded by junk food adverts, they are everywhere. I get more messages from UberEats than I do from my Grandma. It is overwhelming and not good for our health.”

Like the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, a well-designed policy will incentivise the food industry to switch to advertising their healthier products or consider reformulating their borderline products. The research is clear that most companies have the capacity to do this[3]. Indeed, emerging evidence from Transport for London’s junk food advertising ban shows an increase in revenue as companies switched their adverts. Likewise, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has led to an increase in sales of lower sugar drinks and soft drinks overall, and significant sector growth.

Working together for a healthier nation
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the brutal health inequalities that exist within our society, and we know that inequalities in rates of overweight and obesity amongst children are increasing, along with stark inequalities in other diet-related conditions such as dental decay. In order to level up the country, and ensure every child has the best start in life, this must be addressed.

We share your vision of a healthier population. Allowing the online environment to continue to be flooded with adverts for fast-food, crisps and confectionery limits the need for industry to change its behaviour and will significantly undermine other Government efforts to improve public health. Now is the time for ambitious, world-leading policies that put health first and are not weakened by vested interests.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and your advisors so the young people we work with can show you the sheer volume of junk food marketing they see and discuss how we can work together. Please do contact [email protected] to arrange a meeting with representatives of the signatories to this letter.

We look forward to hearing your response in due course.

Signed

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive, British Heart Foundation

Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, Chair of British Medical Association Board of Science

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive, Cancer Research UK

Professor Rachel Batterham, Special adviser on obesity, Royal College of Physicians

Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Improvement, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Chris Askew, Chief Executive, Diabetes UK

James Toop, Chief Executive, Bite Back 2030

Anna Taylor, Executive Director, Food Foundation

Professor Simon Capewell, Faculty of Public Health

Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, President, Association of Directors of Public Health

Dame Professor Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive & General Secretary, Royal College of Nursing 

Caroline Cerny, Lead, Obesity Health Alliance

Mr Matthew Garrett, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of England

Sarah Hickey, Programme Director – Childhood Obesity, Impact on Urban Health

Ben Reynolds, Deputy Chief Executive, Sustain: the Alliance for Better Food and Farming

Caroline Bovey RD BEM – Chair, British Dietetic Association

Johanna Ralston, CEO, World Obesity Federation

Professor Graham MacGregor, Chair, Action on Salt and Sugar

Rachael Gormley, Chief Executive, World Cancer Research Fund 

Katharine Jenner, CEO, Blood Pressure UK

Lorraine Tulloch, Programme Lead, Obesity Action Scotland

Andy Glyde, Co-chair, Obesity Alliance Cymru

Fran Bernhardt, Coordinator, Children’s Food Campaign

Michael Baber, Director, Health Action Campaign 

Matthew Philpott, Executive Director, Food Active and Healthy Stadia

Martin Tod, Chief Executive, Men’s Health Forum

Alison Taylor, Chief Executive, Children’s Liver Disease Foundation

Professor Philip Taylor, Dean of The Faculty of Dental Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh 

Dr Ian Mills, Dean, The Faculty of General Dental Practice UK

Nick Grossman, Trustee – Obesity Action UK

Christina Marriott, Chief Executive, Royal Society for Public Health 

Kim Roberts, Chief Executive, HENRY

Jessica Attard, Head of Food & Health, Healthy Markets Campaign, ShareAction

June O’Sullivan, CEO, London Early Years Foundation

Eddie Crouch, Chair, British Dental Association

Dr Nigel Carter, Chief Executive, Oral Health Foundation

Stephanie Slater, Chief Executive, School Food Matters

Dr Helen Crawley, First Steps Nutrition Trust

Rob Percival, Head of Policy, Soil Association

Dr Maria Bryant, Chair, UK Association for the Study of Obesity

Janet Clarke MBE, Chair of Trustees, The College of General Dentistry

Eddie Morris, President, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Professor Guruprasad Aithal, President, British Association for the Study of the Liver 

Alysa Remtulla, Head of Policy and Campaigns, Magic Breakfast

UK Public Health Network Executive Group

Dr Tim Lobstein, Senior Policy Advisor, World Obesity Federation

Tam Fry chairman and spokesman, National Obesity Forum

Dr Anna Dixon, Chief Executive, Centre for Ageing Better

Vicky Gilroy RGN, RSCN, RHV, PGCE, MSc,FIHV, Institute of Health Visiting

Neville Rigby, International Obesity Forum

Debora Howe, Chair, National Oral Health Promotion Group

Somen Banerjee, Co-Chair, London Association of Directors of Public Health

Purnima Tanuku OBE, Chief Executive, National Day Nurseries Association

Fiona Ellwood BEM, President, Society of British Dental Nurses

Margaret McCabe, Chief Executive, Debate Mate

Sally Bunday MBE, Founder and Director, Hyperactive Children’s Support Group

Jamie Oliver, Chef and Campaigner

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Thomasina Miers, co-founder Wahaca

David Gandy, international supermodel, designer, columnist

Jan Gooding, President, Market Research Society

Dr Chris van Tulleken, TV presenter, BBC and C4

Professor Paul Aveyard, Professor Behavioural Medicine, University of Oxford

Professor Corinna Hawkes, Director, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London

Dr Lauren Carters-White, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Edinburgh 

Professor Martin White, Professor of Population Health Research, MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge

Professor Amandine Garde, School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool

Prof Jeff Collin, Professor of Global Health Policy, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Edinburgh

Dr Rob Ralston, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Edinburgh

Prof Mark Petticrew, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Professor Linda Bauld, Bruce and John Usher Chair in Public Health at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the SPECTRUM Research Consortium

Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies, The Open University 

Professor Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, World Food Prize Winner, and Chair of Action Track 1 of UN Food Systems Summit, on Ensuring Access to Safe Nutritious Food for All

Professor John Wass, Professor of Endocrinology at Oxford University

Dr Emma Boyland, Institute of Population Health, University of Liverpool

Professor Jason C G Halford, President Elect of the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO), University of Leeds

Dr Mark Green, University of Liverpool

Professor David Baldwin, Consultant Respiratory Physician, Nottingham University Hospitals

Dr Laura Nellums, Assistant Professor in Global Health, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham

Professor Rachael Murray, Professor of Population Health, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Nottingham

Professor Andrew Rugg-Gunn, Professor Emeritus, Newcastle University School of Dental Sciences

Professor Jacob George, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Therapeutics, Ninewells Hospital

Professor Feng He, Professor of Global Health Research, Queen Mary University of London

Dr Simon Williams, Associate Professor, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Dr Nicola Heslehurst, Senior Lecturer in Maternal Nutrition, Newcastle University

Julia Knight, Consultant and Assistant Professor in Public Health, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham

Dr Alexander Barker, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Nottingham

Stacey Makin, Integrated Care Communities Manager, North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust

Colin Cox, Director of Public Health, Cumbria County Council

Katrina Stephens, Director of Public Health, Oldham Council

Sarah McNulty, Acting Director of Public Health, Knowsley Council

Andrea Fallon, Director of Public Health and Wellbeing, Rochdale Borough Council

Caitlin Thomas, Corporate Health Manager, GLL

Margaret Jones, Director of Public Health, Sefton Council

Cllr Ian Moncur, Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing, Sefton Council

Emma Mould, Partnership Coordinator, Registered Nutritionist, Food Newcastle

Megan Waring, Head of Nutrition, Caterlink – SugarSmart Primary School Ambassador

 

Notes

[1] Gao M et al (2021). Associations of body mass index with severity of SARS-CoV-2 infection in a community-based cohort of 6.9 million people in England. Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. In Press.

[2] Polling conducted by the Obesity Health Alliance. Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,085 UK adults aged 18+ online from the 22nd to 25th May 2020. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of the UK population by age, gender, region and social grade.

[3] Cancer Research UK analysis. http://www.thegrocer.co.uk/health/tv-ads-for-food-and-drink-still-dominated-by-hfss-products-finds-new-research/602420.article

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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