The UK bans online junk food ads to children; lags behind Quebec but ahead of US and Mexico

Lucy Handley, special to CNBC

The U.K. is to ban junk food advertising to children online and through social media channels, its ad regulator announced today.

New rules from the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) will ban ads promoting high fat, salt or sugar food and drink to under-16s across online and social media, print and cinema, in a move designed to tackle the U.K.'s increasing obesity problems.

The five to 15 age-group is spending around 15 hours a week online, overtaking time spent watching TV for the first time. Advertising junk food in or around children's TV shows has been banned in the U.K. since 2006, which the World Health Organization called a "world first".

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While the U.K. has taken anti junk food online advertising measures ahead of countries such as the U.S., it is behind other regions. Quebec banned fast food advertising to children on TV, electronic and print media in 1980, and now the province has the lowest incidence of childhood obesity in Canada.

The U.S., meanwhile, has the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary scheme for manufacturers and retailers, aiming to tackle obesity which affects some 12.7 million children and adolescents in the country.

The Coca-Cola Company, Ferrero USA, The Hershey Company, Mars and Nestle US are the large companies that have committed not to "engage in child-directed advertising" at all, while others including McDonald's USA, PepsiCo and Unilever United States use the CFBAI's nutrition criteria to determine which products are advertised to children.

In terms of online-specific ads, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in the U.S. called for a clampdown on "influencer" ads that "masquerade as content" on YouTube and other sites run by Disney, Google and AwesomenessTV in October 2016. Global online advertising spend grew fastest of any media in 2016, to a total of $178 billon according to research body MAGMA.

Meanwhile Mexico, where a third of children are overweight, has restricted television advertising to children, and is pushing for food manufacturers to make their food healthier. It has based its policy on the EU Pledge, which companies including Danone, Kellogg's and dairy company FrieslandCampina have signed, agreeing not to target children under 12 with advertising across all media, or only advertise products that meet pledge nutrition criteria.

The U.K. ranks ninth for children (those aged 2 to 19) who are overweight or obese of the 34 OECD countries. In developed countries worldwide, nearly 24 per cent of boys and nearly 23 per cent of girls are classified as such, according to figures collated by Public Health England, while the World Health Organization has called obesity and diabetes a global "slow-motion disaster".

The U.K.'s online junk food ad ban for children comes into effect on 1 July 2017.

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