Top UK doctor calls for phasing out of junk food commercials

An advertisement outside a fast food outlet on January 7, 2013 in Bristol, England
Matt Cardy | Getty Images

A prominent medical expert in the U.K. has called for a ban on junk food ads as part of a range of proposals aimed at cutting childhood obesity rates.

In her last report as England's chief medical officer, Sally Davies claimed ads for unhealthy food were "everywhere (children) look."

"Children are constantly exposed to advertising for unhealthy food and drink," Davies said in the report. "Companies often use children's cartoon characters and sponsorship of major sporting events to market these items, casting them as the shining star in children's minds."

According to the research, one in six children between the ages of 10 and 11 are obese in England, while a further four are classed as overweight — a figure that's doubled over the past three decades.

The crisis was being fueled by a range of factors, Davies claimed, such as increasing portion sizes, expensive healthier foods, and ubiquitous junk food commercials.

In a sweeping set of recommendations, she urged politicians to implement measures that would "allow children to grow up free from marketing, signals and incentives to consume unhealthy food and drinks."

She called for the phasing out of all marketing and sponsorship of less healthy food and drink products, which would apply across all media, including online, and at publicly-funded events and venues. "Less healthy products" would be defined using the U.K. government's nutrient profiling model, which gives foods a score based on nutrients such as sugar, fiber and saturated fat.

Back in June, the U.K. government concluded a public consultation on introducing a ban on junk food TV ads before 9 p.m. in the country. Lawmakers are still analyzing the findings.

In another blow to the food and drinks industry, Davies called for a ban on the consumption of food and drinks on public transport. The only exceptions would be to drink water, breastfeed or for those with medical conditions like diabetes.

In 2017, more than £300 million ($367 million) was spent on advertising soft drinks, confectionary and sweet and savoury snacks, compared to £16 million spent on advertising fruit and vegetables, according to the report.

It referenced data from Nielsen AdDynamix, which showed confectionary products made up 18% of total annual advertising expenditure in the U.K., sweet and savoury snacks made up 17% of total expenditure, and soft drinks contributed 11%. Commercials for fruits and vegetables made up 2.5% of the overall spend.

"Research shows that children respond to unhealthy food advertising on television by eating more," Davies said. "They then fail to compensate at subsequent meals so this will, over time, lead to weight gain. Limiting this on-screen advertising, as proposed by the government, can make valuable contributions to improving children's health."

Commercials for junk food were banned across London's public transport network in February.

Industry backlash

In response to the report's recommendations, the U.K.'s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said the industry was "already working hard" to implement changes recommended by the government.

"Reformulating products takes time, and we must always take the consumer with us. We want government to support us in this work and not introduce punitive measures which might hinder it," Kate Halliwell, FDF head of U.K. diet and health policy, said in a statement on Thursday.

"We agree more needs to be done to tackle obesity and welcome the report's clear steer that everyone needs to play their part … Manufacturers alone will not solve this."

Meanwhile, the British Soft Drinks Association said in a statement that the report "failed to offer conclusive evidence" to support Davies' recommendations.

"We remain doubtful about the efficacy of levies and advertising and promotional restrictions. We believe they jeopardise low- or no-sugar options being offered to consumers."

In 2018, Britain introduced a tax on soft drinks sweetened with added sugars.

A spokesperson for the U.K.'s Advertising Association told CNBC in an email that blanket advertising bans had "little impact on the wider issues in society that drive obesity," and claimed that positive initiatives being led by the industry were left out of the report.

"(The report) also contains clear inaccuracies in statements such as 'children are constantly exposed to advertising for unhealthy food and drink'," they said via email. "In fact, advertising for high fat, salt and sugar food and drink is already banned in media where children made up more than 25% of the audience, whether online, in the street, or on public transport."