Children's HealthNewsletter

New rules on junk food advertising to children

On 1st July 2017, “tough” new rules came into effect banning junk food advertising across all children’s media – including online and social – as part of efforts to tackle childhood obesity.

That’s the press release. It could not be further from the truth.

The new ‘rules’ have been drawn up by a private organisation called the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). They will be ‘enforced’ by another private company called the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). These are not public sector organisations. They have no legislative powers. These two organisations are self-appointed, self-regulated, upholders of each other. CAP makes up ‘the Codes of Advertising Practice”; the ASA applies them.

They are two sides of the same coin; partners in crime. One has a red tick; the other has a blue tick. They live at the same address: Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6QT. They publish a shared annual report.

In 2010, CAP/ASA decided that they would extend their self-appointed remit to the internet. They have recently decided to extend their self-appointed importance to what they decide will be deemed adverts for junk food in circumstances that they have decided should apply.

They are funded by advertisers. Yes, they are funded by the organisations that they are supposed to regulate. The most recent annual report no longer lists the most complained about adverts. If you look at P35 of the 2013 annual report, Unilever had 3 of the top 6 most complained about adverts. None were upheld. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

The current position

The 2004 White Paper published by the UK Department of Health. Choosing Health: making healthier choices easier. set out legislative guidelines for “Food promotion to children.” The 2004 initiative is now archived; a summary can be seen here. With reference to promoting food to children, the document stated: “the Government is committed to securing, by 2007, a comprehensive and effective strategy for action to restrict the advertising and promotion to children of foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar covering through both broadcast and nonbroadcast media, sponsorship, vending machines and packaging.”

On 1st July 2007, Ofcom, the communications regulator in the UK, introduced measures to ban adverts for HFSS products in or around programmes specifically made for children. Ofcom spelled out that “For the avoidance of doubt this measure will remove all HFSS advertising from dedicated children’s channels; advertisements for HFSS products must not be shown in or around programmes of particular appeal to children under 16; and these restrictions will apply equally to programme sponsorship by HFSS food and drink products.”

So the Disney Channel has adverts for Disney products and not food and drink, which maximizes their returns from advertising anyway. Beyond this, 13 years after the 2004 White Paper, very little has been achieved. Brands feature in school nutrition text books. The UK school curriculum has been infiltrated by the processed food companies. Banners for the huge soft drinks brands (Coca-Cola, PowerAde) adorn school playing fields. Children have KitKat pencil cases.

Health charities and political parties are still having to campaign for junk food advertising to be banned before the 9pm television ‘watershed’, which is regulated by Ofcom. Unlike CAP/ASA, Ofcom operates under a number of Acts of Parliament – the 2003 Communications Act in particular. There is thus a clear legislative body and a clear legislative route for children to be protected from junk food adverts – on TV, on line and in the environment around them.  However, this has not been given the government support required to make it happen.

This CAP/ASA stunt is the advertising equivalent of the ‘responsibility deal’. The ‘responsibility deal’ was the laughable initiative that came from the Conservative-Liberal coalition in the UK between 2010-2015. The idea was that processed food companies could regulate themselves. As Professor Simon Capewell said in an interview “You may as well put Dracula in charge of the blood bank!” The irresponsibility deal, as it has been called by health campaigners, has, of course, failed to deliver any change in child, or adult, obesity. The idea that the advertising industry should regulate itself is equally hopeless.

The CAP/ASA ‘rules’ introduced

The ‘rules’ introduced on 1st July only apply to under 16 year olds. In summary they are:

* Ads directly or indirectly promoting a HFSS (High Fat Salt Sugar) product cannot appear in children’s media;

* Ads for HFSS products cannot appear in other media where children make up over 25% of the audience;

* The Department of Health nutrient profiling model will be used to classify which products are HFSS.

The three main issues with the CAP/ASA ‘rules’

1) The first important thing to understand is – what constitutes a HFSS (High Fat Salt Sugar) product? It is equally important to remember from the outset that only one of the three terms generally lumped together (fat, salt and sugar) is a health hazard and that’s sugar. There never has been evidence against dietary fat or salt. Both fat and salt are vital nutrients, without which we die. They are not substances requiring regulation. With this in mind we return to the HFSS trilogy, which forms the basis of this advertising initiative.

You will spend far longer than is healthy on the ASA web site trying to find out what the heck a HFSS product is. Eventually you may come across this page. The ASA is relying upon the Department of Health nutrient profiling model to evaluate HFSS products. Points are allocated on the basis of 100g of a food or drink. Points are awarded for ‘A’ nutrients (energy, saturated fat, total sugar and sodium) – considered the baddies and points are awarded for ‘C’ nutrients (fruit/vegetables/nut content, fibre and protein) – considered the goodies. The score for ‘C’ nutrients is subtracted from the score for ‘A’ nutrients to give the final nutrient profile score. Foods scoring 4 or more points and drinks scoring 1 or more points are classified HFSS.

Here is the Department of Health nutrient profiling model. The guidance document tells us that there are a maximum of 40 ‘A’ points (10 each for the 4 baddies) and a maximum 15 ‘C’ points (5 each for the 3 goodies). As an example, a product scores the maximum 10 baddie points if it has: more than 800 calories per 100g; more than 10g of saturated fat per 100g; more than 45g of sugar per 100g; more than 900mg of sodium per 100g. The mitigating goodie points max out if a product has: more than 80g  per 100g of fruit, veg or nuts; more than 3.5g per 100g of non starch polysaccharide (NSP) fibre OR more than 4.7g of Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC) fibre; more than 8g of protein per 100g.

There are other fabulously random rules e.g. “If a food or drink scores 11 or more ‘A’ points then it cannot score points for protein unless it also scores 5 points for fruit, vegetables and nuts.” You are also required to work out the specific gravity of foods if they are presented in ml and not grams. The entire detail is astounding – look at coconuts on p7 or fruit juice on p8 if you want to lose the will to live.

Here are some products that now fall under the CAP/ASA code for foods that cannot be promoted to children:

– Olive oil scores 20 baddie points – 10 for calories and 10 for saturated fat – and it has no goodie points to mitigate. (Every oil would score at least 10 points, with no points able to be deducted, so at least polyunsaturated vegetable oils are also firmly in the bad foods category).

– Anchovies score 2 for calories, 2 for saturated fat and 10 for sodium. The random rule above kicks in – this is more than 11 ‘A’ points and there are no points for fruit/veg/nuts and so the protein content of anchovies cannot be taken into account. Anchovies therefore end up with a bad food score of 14.

– Whole milk scores 2 for sat fat and 1 for sugars. It gets 2 goodie points for protein, but it still scores a net of 1 – which makes it a drink that can’t be advertised to children. To think we used to have free school milk!

– Kellogg’s Fruit & Fibre cereal clocks up 4 points for calories, 3 for saturated fat, 5 for sugar and 10 for sodium. It gets 5 points deducted for fibre but none deducted for protein, because it didn’t score any points (let alone 5) for fruit/veg/nuts. Hence this gets 17 points – no healthy whole grain adverts allowed for Fruit & Fibre cereal – not even “one of your five-a-day” claims!

– Cheddar cheese scores 5 for calories, 10 for saturated fat and 6 for sodium. It gets no points for fruit/veg/nuts, so the protein value is ignored. With Cheddar cheese adding up to 21 points, there’ll be no grazing cows on children’s screens any more.

– Finally, one product that can be advertising to children (assuming it doesn’t fail any other ‘rules’ made up by CAP) is protein shakes. Products are analysed in the form in which they are consumed – so diluted drinks are measured, not concentrates. If one scoop of protein powder is made into a 100g drink, this would score 1 for calories and 2 for sodium. This would be offset by 1 point for fibre and 5 for protein. Protein shakes have a halo score of minus 3.

Diet Coca-Cola is fine to advertise to children; Welsh lamb isn’t. The Department of Health Nutrient Profile Tool cares not one iota about micronutrients – vitamins and minerals. It was designed for a world to support the message that starch is good and natural food with natural fat is bad.

I hope you enjoyed these examples and now know what to complain about. (Although please never complain to the ASA about anything – don’t give any legitimacy to something that doesn’t have it.)

2) The second problem is that CAP/ASA are not official regulatory bodies. They have no legislative power. These ‘rules’ carry no weight. The way in which they will be enforced is as follows… Junk food co. places an ad promoting junk food to children. Someone needs to complain to the ASA. The ASA then investigates. Notwithstanding their track record in finding against the large organisations that fund them, let’s say the ASA decides that the junk food ad does breach their new code. They then inform the junk food co. and the junk food co. may say “Ok – we won’t run the ad again.” The ad has already been run, been seen, had its impact. Job done.

3) The third issue that I would like to highlight is that these ‘rules’ only apply to ads that directly or indirectly promote a HFSS product in (i) children’s media or (ii) other media where children make up more than 25% of the audience. (i) is already covered for TV by the Ofcom regulations. Hence i) for “online or social media” would need to be a web site specifically designed for under 16s. There may be such a web site, but the messages able to be delivered on such a site are nothing compared to the messages that are still possible on national TV in the UK for programmes watched by millions of people.

The popular family Saturday night shows – X-Factor, Ant & Dec (sorry non Brits!), Britain’s Got Talent etc and the week-day evening soap operas – are all fair game for as long as we allow them to be. Under 16s currently make up 19% of the UK population (2014). Requirement (ii) – that children make up more than 25% of the audience – is unlikely ever to be met for these programmes watched by up to 10 million people each week. In fact, I’m struggling to think of any circumstances in which children will make up more than 25% of the audience other than for circumstances already covered by (i).

As for social media, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat all have a minimum age of 13 and therefore under 16s will never form more than 25% of this audience. There would need to be a Facebook group called “for 13-15 year olds only” for these new ‘rules’ to apply on Facebook, as an example.

The press release quoted CAP chairman, James Best: “These measures demonstrate the advertising industry’s continuing commitment to putting the protection of children at the heart of its work. The new rules will alter the nature and balance of food advertising seen by children and play a meaningful part in helping change their relationship with less healthy foods.”

Ho! Ho! Ho!

The Food and Drink Federation director general, Ian Wright, said the industry group “fully supported” the “landmark move.” I bet they do! Far better to regulate yourselves, with no teeth, than have actual legislation doing something effective to protect children’s health.

As a general principle, if the Food and Drink Federation welcome a new initiative, you can guarantee that it won’t make a difference – to their profits or national health.

References for products used:
Olive oil.
Whole milk.
Kellogg’s Fruit & Fibre cereal.
Cheddar cheese.
Protein Shakes.


One thought on “New rules on junk food advertising to children

  • IOW “they haven’t paid us enough bribes yet”

    Hang on, didn’t I just write that under your previous post?

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