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Ofcom bans junk food advertising to children

LONDON - In a long-awaited decision, media regulator Ofcom has banned junk food advertising in all children's programming and on dedicated children's channels, at a cost of up to £39m in TV ad revenues.

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Following a lengthy consultation, Ofcom has decided that the best way to reduce the exposure of junk food to children is by enforcing a total ban on advertising in and around all programmes of particular appeal to children under the age of 16. This includes children's programming, dedicated children's channels, as well as youth-oriented and adult programmes that could appeal to children.

The decision will come as a shock to advertisers and broadcasters because the regulation targets under-16s, rather than the narrower group of under-nines as previously proposed.

Restrictions targeting junk food advertising will use the current Nutrient Profiling scheme developed by the Food Standards Agency.

In addition, the media regulator has put forward new rules on the content of ads targeted at primary school children. These rules would ban the use of celebrities and characters, such as cartoons, promotional claims and health or nutrition claims.

Ofcom has estimated that the impact on total broadcast revenues would be up to £39m per year, falling to around £23m as broadcasters mitigate revenues loss over time.

The media regulator did, however, rule out a complete pre-9pm ban because, although it would remove a large number of junk food ads from television, much of its effect would fall on adult programming.

According to Ofcom, a 9pm watershed ban would also reduce broadcaster revenues by more than £250m per year.

However, the decision is likely to upset many health charities and bodies, which pushed for a pre-9pm ban, saying that the new rules do not go far enough.

The National Heart Foundation responded by saying it was disappointed by the failure of Ofcom to institute a 9pm watershed ban despite "overwhelming" evidence from health experts and consumers.

Paul Lincoln, NHF, chief executive, said: "The UK currently has the highest rates of child obesity in Europe. This represents a missed opportunity by Ofcom to adopt a 9pm watershed and significantly reshape our food culture and make the UK a world leader in the fight against increases in diet-related ill health and obesity amongst children."

The food industry and advertisers should be content that there is no watershed ban. In June the IPA criticised the government food watchdog's call to Ofcom to end junk food and drink advertising before 9pm, saying it was "sensationalist", "misguided" and "unjustified".

But advertiser body ISBA is not happy. It has slammed the decision and accused Ofcom of being influenced by political opinion.

Ian Twinn, director of public affairs at ISBA, said: "Ofcom's proposals go further than their original plans, hitting advertising to all under-16s on all channels including teen music channels. These proposals are harmful to UK television, damaging to the competitiveness of UK plc and will not reduce obesity.

"We fear that the Ofcom board members have been influenced by political opinion and the campaigns assertions not the evidence. The proposals need more careful study to assess their true impact."

Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive, said: "Based on the evidence and analysis we believe the case for intervention is clear. We will introduce significant but proportionate measures to protect children under 16.

"We will look to advertisers and broadcasters to follow both the spirit as well as the letter of the rules we are putting in place."

The proposals for the shake up were first laid out on March, when Ofcom set out the alternative options for restrictions on advertising junk food to children.

Proposals included three potential packages for regulating food and drink advertising to children, including restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar, timing restrictions on all food and drink products and volume-based restrictions on all food and drink products.

A less rigorous fourth option was offered in July by trade bodies for the food and advertising industries, including the Advertising Association. This option was turned down by Ofcom because it believes the proposal does not meet its objective to reduce significantly the exposure of children under 16 to high fat, sugar and salt advertising.

As a result of Ofcom's decision to expand the regulation to ensure the protection of the under-16s, there will now be a short consultation to seek views on extending restrictions to protect these older children.

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