With more scandal and sleaze gushing out of Westminster than the Sussexes press office, one could be pardoned for glossing over the government's latest flirtation with the supercilious head of nanny statism.
Last week, the Department of Health confirmed plans are going ahead to restrict paid junk food advertising, in order to curb childhood obesity. From 2023, adverts for HFSS products- those which are deemed to be high in fat, salt or sugar – will be prohibited on television, unless between the hours of 9 pm and 5.30 am, and banned at all times online, unless promoted via the manufacturer or brand's own blogs, websites and social media channels.
Obesity is undoubtedly one of the biggest (no pun intended) health challenges facing the United Kingdom, with 1 in 5 British children classed as obese by the age of 11, joining 1 in 4 adults. It is also no fluke that countries with higher obesity rates have generally suffered higher death tolls due to the Coronavirus. Overweight populations have always been more susceptible to respiratory diseases, and a plethora of other health problems.
However, instead of encouraging the medically tried method of a balanced diet and sufficient exercise for weight control, successive 'Conservative' governments have chosen to respond by introducing punitive new measures that do little to tackle obesity, but ultimately hurt both brands and consumers.
Big brands, supermarkets, broadcasters, advertisers and e-commerce will all become collateral damage in this ill-advised war on (the) fat. Over the next 25 years, the government's impact assessment suggests the ban will cost the broadcasting industry £1.5 billion, online platforms £3.5 billion and advertising agencies £550 million. Meanwhile, brands and supermarkets anticipate losses of around £10 million per year in retail sales.
There will be further losses for fast food restaurants and for smaller television and radio stations that lean heavily on advertisers to generate revenue. These outlets have already taken a substantial hit over the past year due to challenges presented by the pandemic.
Paradoxically, some larger commercial channels and sponsored events may make some financial gains. For example, the Department of Health has confirmed product placement during live sporting events will be exempt from the wider ban on television adverts outside their allotted hours. Consequently, goods like Lucozade and Coca Cola can still be televised on daytime TV alongside high-profile sportspeople, including during press conferences.
The price tag for promoting certain products during these events may therefore rise exponentially courtesy of reduced ad space on television during daytime hours. However, it remains unlikely these advertising price hikes will offset the loss of business from larger organisations than can afford to pay considerably more per minute.
Similarly, companies with fewer than 250 employees will also be granted exemptions, because naturally the structure of a business impacts the fat, salt and sugar quantity of its products. These SMEs may profit from greater exposure at the expense of blacklisted family favourites produced by conglomerates. HFSS foodstuffs that cannot be reasonably linked to obesity on their own including honey, olive oil and Marmite, will be exempt too. In fact, there are so many loopholes that the plans are effectively worth less than the paper they're printed on.
Now for the worst of it: the government's own research suggests the advertising ban would reduce a child's consumption by just 635 calories per year. This amounts to roughly half a share bag of milk chocolate buttons.
It is utterly bizarre to press on with a policy that fails one's own in-house cost-benefit analysis and herein lies the eternal problem. Time and time again modern Conservative leaders have pursued policies that decimate consumer choice and disrupt market forces, without actually fixing the principal challenge at hand. The sheer number of exemptions in the latest campaign proves the government is fully aware that barring advertisements for everyday food products would stifle competition and hit businesses hard.
There is no real evidence to prove a causal link between the marketing of certain foods and children's obesity. Junk food ad bans and sugar taxes fail to address that choices are largely dependent on a consumer's environment and education. If the government is so keen to interfere, investment in curriculums and programs to educate school age children about health and nutrition would be a much more efficient change.
Back in 2018, Theresa May introduced levies on manufacturers producing high-sugar drinks sold in Britain. Yet research by Mintel carried out at the time found taxing unhealthy products would encourage less than 50 per cent of Britons to cut back. The government spent big bucks on a scheme that did little to persuade the public to eat better, when they should have pushed for easier-to-understand nutritional information, which would likely alter the purchasing habits of more people in the long-term.
Honey, for example, is broadly considered a healthier alternative to refined sugar. Though it does supply some nutrients, such as vitamin C and iron, the quantity in each standard serving amounts to less than 1 per cent of what the average adult needs per day. Honey also contains roughly 5 more calories per teaspoon than sugar, hence its default classification as a healthy food item is rather deceptive, albeit an error most easily remedied by improved dietary education.
In addition, the impact of socio-economic circumstance on health cannot be sidelined and in many ways, the term 'junk food' is inherently classist. As a nation, we are slowly turning to fresh produce and home cooking, but for many low-income households fast food is simply more cost-effective. The government has gone some way to address this with its free school meal vouchers for the lowest income families, but to achieve long-lasting changes in health outcomes, instructive health and well-being programs must begin in those schools educating children in the most deprived areas of Britain.
Above all, the government must stop this absurd interventionism that is no doubt in part motivated by the Prime Minister's own weight loss goals. Yes, obesity is a problem. No, the government does not have some divine right to dictate which British dietary staples can be shown on our phones, laptops and televisions.