Placing even more restrictions on food marketing won't tackle childhood obesity. Getting children to exercise regularly might though
I am opposed to advertising restrictions, be they designed to limit exposure to food products or any other item. Such intervention is proven to undermine choice, pricing structures and innovation. They are bad for business and bad for consumers.
Bans also tend to erode personal responsibility, encouraging people to become reliant on government for constant guidance about what is good and bad for them. After much heated debate, Ofcom decided last year to introduce regulations to restrict the advertisement of products categorised as high in fat, sugar or salt during programmes targeting children.
The rules were implemented in January and feedback from the ASA shows compliance from manufacturers has been 100%. Despite offering an onerous but seemingly achievable compromise, many NGOs claimed Ofcom's rules didn't go far enough.
Unfortunately, their lobbying in Parliament has resulted in a new political push to extend the rules relating to how food products can be advertised and marketed. Nigel Griffiths, MP, has responded to the spurious calls of the health lobby and tabled a Private Members Bill calling for further restrictions on food marketing.
I oppose all the measures in the Bill. They are disproportionate, interventionist and unworkable. It proposes the new criteria of 'less healthy foods' - products that would be restricted from being advertised before 9pm in a broadcast context and also from being marketed in various non-broadcast contexts, including point of sale and on the internet. If the Bill is successful, the impact on broadcast and non-broadcast media will be significant and will force media owners to assess whether or not to produce certain types of programming and content.
The FSA would have to develop the new 'less healthy foods' criteria - a worrying prospect given the Nutrient Profiling Model they developed for use with Ofcom's existing regulations has resulted in core dietary products such as cheese falling foul of the rules.
The Bill is titled the Food Products (Marketing to Children), but it is hard to know what it has to do with protecting kids given that most of the measures would restrict food marketing in spaces mainly occupied by adults.
Griffiths has also failed so far to prove that by introducing further restrictions his Bill would actually help tackle childhood obesity. As the government's Foresight report highlighted, obesity is a multi-faceted issue requiring action on many fronts. Advertising has been assessed as having a marginal impact on food choices - and action has already been taken. But there are other levers to be pulled in tackling the problem. Getting children to exercise has a significant impact. Of course, for many campaigners it's easier to lobby for regulations rather than take a lead in getting kids active.
I am no fan of Ofcom. But it is also worth pointing out that Griffiths' proposals undermine the principle of independent regulation. What does it mean for independent regulators if new regulations are simply usurped by the politicians who empowered them to make a decision? Griffiths tabled an EDM last November as part of his strategy to build support for his Bill. More than 40 NGOs have lobbied to persuade MPs to sign it. Five months later they have managed to persuade only 30% of MPs to support it. I hope the remaining 70% see the Bill for what it is and oppose it when it comes before the House again on 25 April. n
Philip Davies is the MP for Shipley