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Spending on junk food advertising is nearly 30 times what government spends on promoting healthy eating

BMJ 2017; 359 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j4677 (Published 11 October 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;359:j4677
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. London

UK experts are urging the government to take steps to restrict advertising of junk food after a new analysis was published showing that food companies spend much more on such advertising than the government spends on promoting healthy eating.

The concerns have been raised by the Obesity Health Alliance of more than 40 leading health charities, medical royal colleges, and campaign groups, which released details of the analysis on 11 October to coincide with world obesity day.

The analysis used data from The Grocer magazine’s top 100 list of advertising spending on fast moving consumer brands, which identifies brands commonly associated with crisps, confectionery, and sugary drinks.1

The analysis showed that companies producing the top 18 UK brands spent more than £143m (€160m; $190m) on advertising their products last year. This was around 27.5 times the £5.2m annual spending on the government’s flagship healthy eating campaign Change4Life, run by Public Health England, said the alliance.

In addition, the NHS was spending an estimated £38m a year on weight loss surgery, said the alliance, and treating obesity related conditions cost the NHS around £5.1bn a year.

Members of the alliance include the BMA, Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Physicians, Diabetes UK, Cancer Research UK, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Surgeons of England and of Edinburgh, Action on Sugar, and the Faculty of Public Health.

The alliance said that the UK’s increasing prevalence of obesity threatened to cripple the NHS financially and was damaging the nation’s health. It called on the government to close existing loopholes to restrict children’s exposure to junk food advertising across all media, including on television before the 9 pm watershed. Such loopholes include the fact that restrictions on such advertisements apply only when it can be shown that at least 25% of the audience is children.

The alliance was also seeking an extension to marketing rules to cover sponsorship of sports, family attractions, and marketing communications in schools.

Caroline Cerny, the alliance’s lead, said, “It’s like a very unbalanced diet—with children’s health getting a raw deal. Junk food companies are spending tens of millions of pounds a year on promoting their products. Government healthy eating campaigns can’t possibly compete.

“There’s only ever going to be one winner, so it’s not surprising that the cost of obesity to people’s health, the NHS, and wider society is spiralling out of control. Something needs to be done urgently to redress the balance.”

Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the charity the Children’s Food Campaign, said, “The role of advertising in driving us towards unhealthy foods cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to children. We need the government to go further to protect children from junk food marketing and to safeguard their future health and to avoid having to spend millions dealing with the consequences down the line.”

Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said, “We are certain that advertising is influential when it comes to choosing unhealthy foods.

“Our healthy lifestyle campaigns make an important contribution, but they are only part of the wider solution needed to shrink the nation’s expanding waistline.

“We’re at the forefront of some of those solutions, including working with industry to reduce sugar and calories in food. When Public Health England advises policy makers about what’s next in the fight against childhood obesity, all evidence of what works is taken into account.”

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