Children are exposed to the same level of junk food advertising in UK, despite ban on advertising of foods high in fat, salt or sugar during children’s programming.
Newcastle University academics said 6.1% of adverts seen by children were about junk food before the ban – the figure was 7% after the ban.
The researchers measured the unhealthy food advertising six months before the restrictions were introduced in 2007, and again six months after they were fully implemented in 2009.
The overall proportion of unhealthy items in food adverts increased from 38.6% to 60.4% over this period, and from 5.7% to 8.7% among all adverts. There was a slight decrease in the amount of food advertising as a part of all advertising, from 14.8% to 14.5%.
The team noted that although most of the adverts stuck to the rules, children were still being exposed to junk food ads during other programming not particularly aimed at them. Their exposure to junk food adverts went from 6.1% to 7%, which is not a big enough change to be considered a “statistical increase”.
Dr Jean Adams, lecturer in public health at Newcastle University, said: “While adverts stay within the letter of the law, I think we can say we’re still not getting the spirit of the law.
“These regulations were brought in to help young people make better lifestyle choices and encourage a healthier diet. However, what they see is exactly the same advertising for food which is high in salt or high in sugar and fat as before the regulations came in.
The restrictions were phased in by the watchdog Ofcom from 2007 amid concerns about the level of child obesity. They apply to children’s programmes, children’s channels and programmes that are expected to attract a lot of young viewers.
Ofcom said its own studies indicated the contrary, that there had been a decrease in how much young people viewed adverts for unhealthy food.
An Ofcom spokeswoman said: “We note the research from the University of Newcastle. Our final review of the rules, which included a full year of data from 2009, showed a significant reduction (37%) in children’s exposure to adverts for products that were high in fat, salt and sugar since 2005.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Being overweight and not eating well is bad for our health. Controlling the advertising of food to children is important, but it is only part of the picture..”
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) said the research highlighted a “loophole” in the regulations. BHF policy manager Mubeen Bhutta said: “To protect children all junk food adverts should be screened after the 9pm watershed and we want to see consistent advertising regulations across all forms of media, including online, to protect our children.754