Response to Ofcom

Children's Food Bill campaign response to Ofcom Consultation Document: Television Advertising of Food and Drink Products to Children

I am pleased to submit a response to the above consultation on behalf of the Children's Food Bill coalition, which is co-ordinated by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. A draft of this response has been circulated for comment to all 164 national organisations that currently support the Children's Food Bill.

The Bill calls for measures to:

  • protect children from the marketing of unhealthy food and drink products;
  • improve  school food standards to ensure that all school meals are healthy;
  • prevent the sale of unhealthy food and drinks from school vending machines;
  • teach food education and practical food skills to all children;
  • ensure the Government promotes healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables, to children.


The Children's Food Bill coalition's approach:

This consultation takes place in the context of childhood obesity becoming the nation's number one public health concern.  The childhood obesity statistics paint a bleak picture about Britain's future health:

  • One in three children is now obese or overweight. (1)
  • Obesity in under-11s has risen by over 40% in ten years. (2)
  • The Chief Medical Officer has compared the crisis in children's diets to a health 'time bomb' which must be defused. (3)
  • The International Obesity Task Force estimates that each year in England 220,000 additional children become overweight or obese. (4)

In fact the childhood obesity situation is so serious that Sir John Krebs, former Chair of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), has warned that for the first time in more than a century life expectancy may fall, with the real prospect that parents may outlive their children.(5)

No one would seek to claim that junk food advertising is the sole cause of childhood obesity.  However, unless we take urgent action against childhood obesity across all of the relevant fronts (diet, exercise, health information and so on) we will not reverse the trend in the growth of childhood obesity.

The Hastings' Review (6) and its subsequent peer review(7)  showed that there is a “causal link” between junk food advertising and childhood obesity.  Hastings also concluded that there was not enough evidence to suggest the size of this effect.  According to Hastings it is imposable to say that the effect of food advertising on obesity is “modest”, as Ofcom states in its document.  In these circumstances we believe the precautionary principle should apply and Ofcom should take greater steps to protect children's health than it is currently proposing.  Professor Sonia Livingstone states that although the direct effect of advertising is modest, advertising had an unquantifiable indirect effect as well.  She also reminded us that because an effect cannot be measured does not mean that it is small.

We also note research by Professor Livingstone which states that, although children's interaction with the media changes as they grow older, they remain equally vulnerable to advertising throughout their childhood.  We therefore cannot see what the evidence is for Ofcom and the British Code of Advertising Practice (BCAP)'s concentration on younger children.  We believe that content and scheduling restrictions should be based on the commonly agreed and legally specified definition of children as aged up to 16 years.  It is especially vital that teenagers are covered by any potential restrictions as 21.5% of 12 to 16 year olds are obese. (8)

Finally, we have grave concerns about the consultation process used by Ofcom to reach their conclusions.  We note the results of the Freedom of Information request submitted by Sustain that revealed that Ofcom met with industry groups on 117 occasions, compared to 18 meetings with health and consumer groups.  We believe that it is evident in the consultation document that Ofcom have attached greater weight to the arguments made by the broadcast and food industry, compared to those made by other groups, including health and consumer groups, the Food Standards Agency and the Office of the Children's Commissioner. 

We note that Ofcom have said that “we are a broadcast regulator, if we were a health regulator we might have recommended something different”.(9)  This remark seems to confirm that Ofcom have put the interests of broadcasters before the health of our children.  This issue is of critical national importance, given the enormous potential health, economic and social consequences of the current childhood obesity epidemic.  Ofcom's close relationship with the broadcasters has meant that this consultation failed to address adequately the scale of the health problems we face.

 


 

1   National Audit Office, Healthcare Commission, Audit Commission (2006); Tackling Childhood Obesity – First Steps.
2   As above.
3   Chief Medical Officer, (2003), Health Check: On the state of public health – Annual Report 2002, Department of Health.
4   International Obesity Task Force estimate is based on Health Survey for England 2002 figures, using UK definitions of overweight & obesity.
5  'Official: fat epidemic will cut life expectancy', The Observer, 9 November 2003.
6  'Does Food Promotion Influence Children? A Systematic Review of the Evidence,'  by Professor Gerard Hastings and his team at the University of Strathclyde Centre for Social Marketing.  http://www.food.gov.uk/news/pressreleases/2003/sep/foodtochildren
7  Details from FSA website: http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/webpage/academicreview
8  Health survey for England 2003. Department of Health.
9  Comments made at the Westminster Diet and Health Forum, 1 June 2006.

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