Government accused of “playing politics with children’s health” as it delays HFSS advertising and multi-buy bans
Owing to what it called an “unprecedented global economic situation”, the Government will not prevent shops from offering multi-buy deals on foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), nor introduce a pre-watershed advertising ban this year as originally promised.
Instead, multi-buy rules will come into effect in October 2023 and the advertising ban will be implemented in January 2024. However, legislation which limits the location of HFSS goods within larger stores will still come into play on 1 October 2022.
The Government has decided to delay the implementation of HFSS rules due to the growing cost of living crisis. It said economies the world over are currently struggling with higher-than-expected energy and goods costs, which are affecting both businesses and consumers.
Public Health Minister Maggie Throup said: “Pausing restrictions on deals like buy one get one free will allow us to understand its impact on consumers in light of an unprecedented global economic situation.”
Additionally, a Government statement said the advertising ban was being deferred because of a delay to the Health and Care Bill receiving Royal assent, as well as recognition that the industry needs more time to prepare.
“We have listened to the concerns which have been raised and will not be bringing in restrictions on junk food advertising until confident that the time is right,” said Media, Data and Digital Minister Julia Lopez.
News of delays to HFSS rules has been expected, with several national news outlets suggesting the Conservative Government was facing pressure from its own MPs and the food industry, as well as from how families struggling with the soaring cost of living might be impacted by the incoming legislation.
The change of plan has not been welcomed by campaign and advocacy groups, however, which say delaying the HFSS rules shows a lack of commitment to the nation’s health and tackling the obesity crisis.
Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chair of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said: “Boris Johnson could have left a legacy of being the first Prime Minister to address obesity in a meaningful way, particularly in restricting advertising and promotion of unhealthy food which were one of his flagship policies.
“Instead, he has given in to his own MPs, and an aggressive food industry, who, ironically, were starting to comply with these new policies.”
MacGregor said the delay “completely contradicts” the country’s ‘Levelling Up’ ambitions and will undoubtedly put more pressure on the NHS as it tries to deal with the escalating cost of treating obesity. The same critiques were levelled by Labour’s Shadow Health Minister Andrew Gwynne.
Meanwhile Children’s Food Campaign Co-ordinator Barbara Crowther said the delay would severely impede the fight against childhood obesity, which has spiked considerably in the last two years.
“What we needed was faster, not slower action,” she said. “By delaying and dithering to implement his own obesity strategy and laws that have only just been passed in Parliament, Boris Johnson has instead chosen to play politics with children’s health.”
Additionally, Crowther criticised the reasoning behind the delays by saying HFSS multi-buy deals do not save people money. A spokesperson for the Food Foundation further emphasised this point, telling Food Matters Live that multi-buy deals on junk food are a false economy, as they simply promote “unnecessary impulse spending”.
“Government should press ahead with their plans to introduce restrictions on this specific type of promotion,” said the spokesperson. “This will encourage businesses to switch to more helpful types of promotions on everyday essentials – promotions that will actually help save people money. Businesses have invested significant resources in preparing for the implementation of these regulations and will only be frustrated by delays.”
Despite the criticism, the delay has been welcomed by those in the food and retail industry who have been lobbying for such a situation for some time.
Kate Halliwell, the Food and Drink Federation’s Chief Scientific Officer, said: “At a time when both families and our manufacturers are struggling with high inflation, it makes sense to delay the restrictions on volume promotions for everyday food and drink products.
“We also welcome the delay to the start of advertising restrictions, given the time it will take our industry to prepare for the change in law.”