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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a meeting with representatives of the signatories to this letter.
We look forward to hearing your response in due course.
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
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
 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.
 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.
 Cancer Research UK analysis. https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/health/tv-ads-for-food-and-drink-still-dominated-by-hfss-products-finds-new-research/602420.article
Published Tuesday 6 April 2021
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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