Playing our part in tackling a public health challenge

Jan 12th '17

Opinion piece by Shahriar Coupal: Advertising Standards Authority (ASA): Director of Advertising Policy and Practice.


Obesity. It’s a big problem! In the UK, our expanding waistlines are having a detrimental impact on people’s health and life expectancy, on the NHS and the wider economy. Type 2 diabetes is estimated to cost the NHS £8.8 billion a year, that’s around 8% of its annual budget. A third of children are overweight or obese and the evidence shows that many of them will go on to be so in their adult lives.


It’s generally agreed that there’s no quick fix: behavioural change takes time. Obesity must be tackled through a co-ordinated and sustained response involving parents, schools, the food and soft drink industry and a wide range of public authorities, including public health and regulatory bodies. I’m pleased to say that CAP is playing its part in that response.


On the 1 July this year, tough new rules banning the advertising of food and soft drink products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) in children’s non-broadcast media come into effect.


The ban will apply in traditional and online children’s media, from magazines and cinema to social media and advergames. Together with restrictions already in place for TV, the rules now extend across all devices and technology ensuring that regulation remains in step with children’s changing lives and media habits. New research published by Ofcom shows children aged 5-15 are spending around 15 hours each week online – overtaking time spent watching TV for the first time.


Our decision follows a careful and thorough public consultation that took us to every nation of the United Kingdom, and involved input from a wide variety of organisations and individuals, including public health bodies and campaigners, policy makers and academics. And, crucially, it involved the buy-in and support of major food manufacturers, advertisers and the UK non-broadcast media industry.


We’ve long required advertisers to be responsible in their marketing of food to children. That requirement now seeks to alter the nature and balance of food advertising seen by children. Respondents to our consultation agreed that this a legitimate aim, and I’m confident that the rules will achieve their purpose by removing HFSS product ads entirely from children’s media and by incentivising the advertising of healthier alternatives in their place. By doing so, the rules should minimise any short-term impact on the funding of children’s media.


Although the evidence continues to suggest that the impact of advertising on children’s food preferences is modest, we believe that even a relatively small impact from new advertising restrictions could, given the scale of child obesity in the UK, make a meaningful contribution to tackling this important health issue. But, we shouldn’t be in any doubt, factors such as parental influence, education and school policies, and reformulation of food and soft drinks will make the greatest inroads into tackling child obesity.


Our new rules are not a silver bullet. But, they will play a meaningful part in changing media environments and children’s exposure to advertising for less healthy foods. The ad industry was asked to explore what role regulation can reasonably play in helping tackle this deep-seated public health challenge; I think it’s answered that challenge loud and clear.


About Shahriar Coupal:

Shahriar became ASA Director of Advertising Policyand Practice and Director of CAP and BCAP in July 2009. He joined the ASA from Ofcom in 2005, when the ASA took on responsibility for regulating broadcast advertising. He was previously Manager of the CAP and BCAP Code Policy team where he played a central role coordinating an unprecedented review of the UK Advertising Codes. Shahriar studied Politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury and Economics at Birkbeck. He has worked in the public and private sector.


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