Rishi Sunak is facing a furious backlash from health experts after his government again delayed plans to ban TV advertising for junk food ahead of the watershed.
A ban on advertising high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods before 9 p.m. should come into effect from January 2023, as should a ban on “buy one, get one free” offers for junk food. However, in May it was postponed by a year by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Implementation of the policy has now been further delayed until 2025, by which time a new parliament is expected to meet after the next general election. Recent opinion polls suggest the Conservatives are in for a heavy defeat.
With low-income households most likely to be negatively impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, the recent delay has infuriated healthy food campaigners and industry experts, who are urging Sunak to at least stick to Johnson’s 2024 target.
“The delay in advertising restrictions on junk food is a shocking move by the government for which there is no valid justification other than a flimsy excuse that companies need more time to prepare and reformulate,” said Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance.
“This is the action of a government that seems more concerned about its own short-term political health than the longer-term health of children.”
Cases of type 2 diabetes in children and young adults have been rising faster in Britain than anywhere else in the world, according to a study published by the BMJ on Wednesday.
This represents an almost four-fold increase in the number of younger people being diagnosed with the disease since 1990, which Diabetes UK says is partly due to disadvantaged families being “pushed towards unhealthy options”.
The charity’s chief executive, Chris Askew, said the delay to 2025 was “shameful” and “disgraceful”, adding: “Delaying action will disproportionately hit the lowest income households who have less access to healthy food and affected by a greater amount of advertising unhealthy food.
“The Government’s shameful decision to delay these vital measures means people living in the most deprived areas will continue to be pushed towards unhealthy options, widening the health inequalities that are prevalent in type 2 diabetes and obesity in England exist, further solidified.”
After a public consultation, the government said the new rules would apply to television and on-demand programming, as well as restrictions on paid online advertising for unhealthy foods.
Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chair of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said: “This news is extremely disappointing and goes against all the overwhelming evidence and public support for it.
“The only people benefiting from this unprovoked delay are the multinational food companies, who are used to making huge profits from their unhealthy products and have no personal interest in the health of the nation.”
Brands spend more than £600m a year promoting food online and on TV. Banning TV advertising for foods high in fat, salt and sugar before 9pm could cost broadcasters like ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky more than £200m a year in revenue.
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesman told the Guardian that the government remains committed to the ban and will provide an update “in due course”.
“The government takes the fight against obesity seriously,” they added. “A fit and healthy population is vital to a thriving economy, and we remain committed to helping people lead healthier lives.”
Meanwhile, restrictions on junk food displays in stores went into effect on October 1. The government is believed to still be holding on to an October 2023 target to ban buy-one-get-one-free junk food deals.