Junk food marketing restrictions: so near and yet so far

Supermarket shelves filled with crisps and sweets

The path to policy change is rarely straightforward. The UK Government’s decision last week to further delay (until October 2025) implementing legislation to restrict junk food advertising on TV and online is just the most recent example. That doesn’t stop this particular setback hurting as it slows down vital progress towards reducing the number of preventable cases of cancer; and, from a personal perspective, as I’ve been campaigning for this policy for many years.

When the UK Government launched a new strategy to tackle obesity in 2020, building on their commitment to halve childhood obesity by 2030, it was hailed as a ‘landmark day’ for the nation’s health. But even then, we knew it wasn’t a done deal. It was then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s brush with serious COVID finally helped to change the political winds in our favour; and they could just as easily turn again, which they now have. In the past year successive Prime Ministers have treated junk food marketing restrictions as a political football, at the expense of the longer-term health and wellbeing of children.

Not taking action now to reduce overweight and obesity rates has a direct effect on cancer risk. We need governments to recognise the urgency of this issue. Delay means that more people will be at higher risk of cancers like breast, bowel and pancreatic cancer in the future. And people from more deprived areas will bear the brunt of this.

If the UK Government is serious about halving childhood obesity and improving cancer outcomes, it cannot keep kicking the can down the road. The Government must reverse its decision and implement these restrictions within the coming year.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK

What we’re exposed to on our mobile phones, TV screens and high streets plays a big part in what we end up eating. Research by Cancer Research UK found that many young people recalled, and they offered tangible examples of how this influenced their food choices and purchases. Such adverts were especially prevalent on social media. And the number of places young people are exposed to this advertising continues to grow.

Presciently, my very first foray into this policy area a decade ago was on the food industry’s hearty appetite for producing online content which appealed to children, and regulation failing to keep up with the rapid rise of new digital platforms. More recently, the UK Government’s own figures conservatively show that a 9pm watershed for TV adverts of junk food and restrictions on paid online advertising could reduce the number of children with obesity by more than 20,000.

Malcolm Clark is senior prevention policy manager at Cancer Research UK. He oversees Cancer Research’s policy work on tobacco, obesity and other cancer prevention risk factors.

In April 2022, legislation containing these measures was passed with cross-party, and strong public, support, and was set to be implemented on 1 January 2023. That had seemed a distant prospect back in early 2018, when I started working at Cancer Research UK. At the time there was no commitment from the UK Government to address junk food marketing. My very first week coincided with the publication of research we commissioned which found that such advertising was a “clear, consistent and cumulative risk factor” for high junk food consumption amongst young people.

The report was the first in a series published by Cancer Research UK designed to further the evidence base and open the space for policy change. The public health marketing campaign the charity undertook in 2018-19, raising public and politicians’ awareness of the link between overweight and obesity and cancer, was another part of that approach. We also activated our campaigner network, who wrote to the Department of Health and Social Care and repeatedly made their concerns known to their MPs.

Parts of the food and advertising industries have fought ferociously against the restrictions, with some following tobacco and alcohol’s playbook of turning to legal challenges. And an alphabet soup of libertarian and free market organisations have pushed their s and conflicts of interest at the heart of Government. Finding ways to counter these private sector activities has not been easy, and as last week’s decision shows, hold significant sway in the corridors of power. But I know from experience with the successful campaign for a sugary drinks tax, it can be done.

The UK Government chose to delay action at the very moment that sticks rather than carrots have been shown to have the most impact on industry behaviour. The Office of Health Improvement and Disparities’ latest sugar reduction report found that a voluntary approach was not delivering the intended results. Further delaying advertising restrictions, which were expected to speed up reformulation progress, risks stalling moves to healthier products in the spotlight. Even though most of the UK’s biggest food brands could quite easily switch to marketing healthier options if they were made to.

But it’s not all bad news. The measures introduced in October this year to prevent the display of junk food at checkouts and aisle ends has already made a real difference to our retail environment. And buy-one-get-one-free and other similar promotional offers on junk food are also meant to be outlawed from October 2023, which will be a huge step forward. And supermarkets are ready to make this change, with Tesco and Sainsbury’s having already ended multi-buy deals on junk food.

The introduction of a ban on junk food advertising across the London transport network has also shown that advertising restrictions are workable and effective. And an increasing number of local and regional authorities are looking to follow London’s lead. The devolved nations, whilst having a narrower remit, are also seeking to make policy progress. And the public are still very much in favour of implementing the TV and online HFSS advertising restrictions at the earliest possible opportunity.

We will continue to push for this to happen, as well as for other obesity policy measures which the UK and devolved governments have committed to introduce, by supporting the Obesity Health Alliance (of which we are a member).

Our work goes beyond obesity policy though. Around 4 in 10 cases of cancer in UK are preventable, and smoking is still the biggest cause of cancer. That is why Cancer Research UK has recently launched a major campaign to bring down smoking rates across the UK. join us on this journey to help make sure young people don’t start smoking, and ensure smokefree funding to help people quit.

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