UK Government plans world-leading 9pm watershed policy to reduce the impact of unhealthy food advertising

UK Government plans world-leading 9pm watershed policy to reduce the impact of unhealthy food advertising

Evidence that excess weight is linked to the severity of coronavirus sympto-matology and its mortality risk has finally convinced the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to act on the growing obesity problem in the UK. The Government are thought to be considering a raft of new policies, including a 9pm water-shed for the advertising of high fat, sugar, and salt products on television.

Dr Emma Boyland, a Senior Lecturer in Appetite and Obesity at the University of Liverpool’s Institute for Population Health, supports this move and says these proposed restrictions on food advertising are evidence-based and an important step in the battle to get Britain healthier.

Studies conducted at the University of Liverpool have shown that exposure to advertising for unhealthy foods and drinks alters children’s food preferences in favour of unhealthy choices and leads to greater food intake. Children do not consume less at their next meal to compensate for the additional snacks consumed; it is clear to see how, over time, responding to food advertising in this way would lead to weight gain.

Beyond this, food advertising shapes our thoughts and beliefs about foods, subtly guiding us around what is “normal” and “appropriate” eating behav-iour. Advertising teaches us that we should never let ourselves experience hunger, that we deserve that snack, that we should use food as a reward or to help us navigate life events, that everybody is eating fast food and taking their children to fast food outlets, that (over) eating unhealthy food makes us happy and fulfilled, and has no negative consequences.

As humans we have innate preferences for energy dense foods (high in fat and sugar). When you add appetising food cues (that store-bought choco-late snack with liquid chocolate oozing out of the middle for example) to fun, familiar, appealing food brands, in a commercial marketing package communicated with imagery, colour, sound, animation and the implicit mes-saging that we should give in to our temptations – it is an intoxicating mix. It sells, even to adults who understand that advertising manipulates the truth to get product sales. It is easy to be persuaded, whether we are consciously aware of the exposure or the influence over our choices or not.

Current regulations on TV food advertising (fully implemented in 2009) set the precedent that food advertising is harmful and should be restricted to pro-tect public health. While these rules have reduced the volume of unhealthy food advertising in child-focused media, they do not sufficiently cover other programming watched by children and adults in huge numbers (soap oper-as, entertainment shows etc).

People struggling with their weight and especially those living with obesity need support with weight management. Understanding the science of weight management, why would the Government NOT step in to help create healthier choice architecture?

Cries of lost advertising revenue are a false, but predicable, argument. Other advertising increases to fill the spaces lost by food (this happened with the 2009 restrictions and with the recent Transport for London ban). If we’re talk-ing economics, our recent modelling study notes that a 9pm watershed would likely reduce child obesity by around 5% and lead to a health-related net monetary benefit of £7.4 billion to society.

As it is, our every food-related decision is influenced by a myriad of factors beyond our control – the availability, accessibility, affordability, marketing and promotion of processed items all seeking to grab our attention and to become the one we purchase to the detriment of competitor brands’ bot-tom lines. Take away the advertising and manipulation, and we can begin to tip the balance back in favour of being able to make our own minds up about what we eat and drink.

The UK Government is not alone in questioning how best to tackle increasing digital advertising of unhealthy food. But focusing on “getting it right for TV first” would be a hugely important step. The Government needs to stand firm against industry fightback. If advertising doesn’t do anything, as they say, why are they so worried about it being curtailed?

Bring in the 9pm watershed policy that has the support of academics, health and medical organisations, and the public. This is a vital piece for addressing the complex obesity puzzle.

Dr Emma Boyland, University of Liverpool
[email protected]