Following a public consultation, the UK government has announced that at the end of next year, a 9pm watershed for advertisements of foods high in fat, salt and sugar will be introduced.

As part of its ongoing plan to tackle childhood obesity, the UK government will be imposing restrictions on when advertisements of foods high in fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS) can be aired on TV. These measures aim to improve the health of children across the UK by reducing their exposure to advertising of junk food.

Set to come into force next year, the watershed will apply to both TV and UK on-demand programmes, as well as restrictions on paid-for advertising of HFSS foods online.

This move follows a public consultation, of which 79% respondents supported the 9pm watershed and 74% agreed with introducing further advertising restrictions online.

Public Health Minister, Jo Churchill, commented: “We are committed to improving the health of our children and tackling obesity. The content youngsters see can have an impact on the choices they make and habits they form. With children spending more time online it is vital we act to protect them from unhealthy advertising.

“These measures form another key part of our strategy to get the nation fitter and healthier by giving them the chance to make more informed decisions when it comes to food. We need to take urgent action to level up health inequalities. This action on advertising will help to wipe billions off the national calorie count and give our children a fair chance of a healthy lifestyle.”

Where do these restrictions apply?

According to the UK government, in order to keep the restrictions proportional, these new regulations will apply to food and drink products that are of most concern to childhood obesity and will ensure the healthiest in each category can continue advertising. For example, foods such as honey, olive oil, avocados and marmite are excluded from the restrictions.

The 9pm watershed will apply to all businesses with 250 or more employees that make or sell HFSS, meaning small and medium businesses will be able to continue advertising.

Online restrictions

In light of COVID-19, the government states that it recognises that these companies may be “some of the hardest hit by the pandemic” and rely on online media to communicate with customers.

Therefore, online restrictions will be limited to paid-for advertising, ensuring brands can continue to advertise within ‘owned media’ spaces online; such as a brand’s own blog, website, app or social media page.

Regulation benefits

The TV and online restrictions could remove up to 7.2 billion calories from children’s diets per year in the UK which, over the coming years, could reduce the number of obese children by more than 20,000, according to the statement released by the UK government.

The government estimates there were around 2.9 billion child HFSS TV impacts and 11 billion impressions online – defined as an individual seeing a single advert one time – in the UK in 2019.

By restricting the amount of these products advertised, the government believe it will encourage healthier food choices and will help to reduce the number of children living with obesity and going on to develop conditions associated with excess weight, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, liver disease and breast cancer later in life.

In addition, analysis from September 2019 demonstrated that almost half (47.6%) of all food adverts shown over the month on ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky1 were for products high in fat, salt and sugar, rising to nearly 60% between 6pm and 9pm. Ofcom research suggests that children’s viewing peaks in the hours after school, with the largest number of child viewers concentrated around family viewing time, between 6pm and 9pm.

The measures set out today form part of the UK’s legislative response to tackling obesity.

Food and Drink Federation responds

However, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has hit back, stating that the proposed advertising bans on TV and online would “remove less than four calories a day from children’s diets” based on the government’s own estimates.

The FDF’s Chief Scientific Officer, Kate Halliwell, said: “We are disappointed that the government continues to press ahead with its headline chasing policies rather than making serious interventions which will help reduce obesity rates.”

Halliwell went on to say that these proposals will “limit the scope for advertising products that are widely recognised to contribute to a healthy diet”.

She continued: “Jordan’s would not be able to advertise their Fruit and Nut Granola as it contains fruit and nuts which contain naturally occurring sugars and fats. The proposals would also make it difficult to advertise many products that have been carefully reformulated or created in smaller portions in-line with the government’s own targets.

“Not only do the proposals signal a lack of joined-up policy, the implementation periods for both advertising and promotional restrictions do not give businesses enough time to prepare for the changes. While we are disappointed that government is pressing ahead with its plans for the bans, we will continue to work with government constructively to ensure the policies are practical.”