Junk food ad ban faces powerful opposition so the people must speak up – Steve Cardownie

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has spoken out against junk food ads aimed at children. Picture: PA
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has spoken out against junk food ads aimed at children. Picture: PA
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Proposals to ban junk food adverts until after the 9pm watershed have been put out for public consultation by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in an effort to address the current ­children’s health crisis which has witnessed one in three primary school children leaving school ­overweight or obese, with the number of children classed as ­seriously obese at a record high.

The DHSC has stated that adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt content would be subjected to a ­
pre-9pm ban which would impact on TV, online streaming sites and social media companies. This has prompted the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to say: “If we don’t find effective ways to improve our kids’ health, UK children will live shorter lives than their ­parents. It’s a fact that kids are hugely influenced by junk food ads – so the media and the food industry has a real opportunity here to do something about it.”

Up to 1,000 more children a year are expected to require treatment for severe obesity-related problems such as asthma and diabetes by 2022-23 and the DHSC described the present position as “a rising epidemic in childhood obesity”. Confectionery, crisp and sugary drinks companies in the UK spend £143m per year on advertising compared to the £5m per year the UK Government spends on its healthy eating campaigns, as research by the Obesity Health Alliance has found – which helps lend some ­perspective to the scale of the problem.

Cancer Research UK, which ­supports the proposals, has said that watching one extra junk food advert a week, beyond the average of six, leads to children eating an additional 18,000 calories a year which equates to 70 Mars bars and could lead to an annual weight gain of five pounds.

The Food Standards Agency also supports the ban, saying that it is ­necessary to improve the diet of ­children and young people up to the age of 15, which is at odds with the proposals put forward by Ofcom, the communications regulator which wants to limit junk food promotions to children up to the age of nine.

The National Consumer Council and The National Heart Forum also oppose the Ofcom position, which is based on the belief that a ban until 9pm could cost broadcasters between £130-£240 million a year which it deems “disproportionate”.

This stance puts profits before children’s health and, given the weight of health organisations’ professional opinion, campaigners are hopeful that Ofcom will either have to change its position or that its recommendations will be ignored by the UK Government. Additional pressure has also been applied by the National Heart Forum which has asked the High Court for a judicial review of Ofcom’s decision to reject a watershed as the Forum is of the view that the 9pm cut-off point should be subjected to public debate.

I have witnessed first-hand the effect that advertising can have on children as my son has been subjected to attempts to persuade him to buy junk food rather than healthy options. Although we have managed to convince him to largely ignore such unhealthy fare, the statistics demonstrate that children and young people are consuming such products to an unhealthy extent.

Although confectionery is strictly rationed at home we can only hope that he continues to adhere to this good practice when he is outwith our direct influence such as attending school, or out of school pursuits, but it is a ongoing struggle when faced with the barrage of trendy adverts aimed at him and his peers in an effort to part him from his money by purchasing unhealthy items in their eye-catching wrappers or containers.

The big companies are highly unlikely to take the threat of this junk food advertising ban lying down and will employ every means at their disposal, no matter the cost, to kill this proposal. Hopefully the public response to the consultation exercise will be so emphatic that it cannot be ignored. Public opinion can, on occasions, influence MPs – and this issue is too important to our children’s health for adults to be complacent.

Parents’ focus should be eye tests for kids

The question of the effects of spending prolonged periods looking at a computer or phone screen on a child’s eyesight has been brought into sharp focus of late.

As more young people in particular spend more time on social media, computer games or websites the issue of protecting their eyesight has benefited from the kind of expert advice which is not only useful but practical.

Short frequent breaks away from the screen is all too obvious but sometimes difficult to adhere to if a game is in progress and continued participation is essential. However,children should be encouraged to find other time-consuming pursuits to break up their screen time.

The 20-20-20 rule should also be complied with, which is simply every 20 minutes, look 20 metres away for 20 seconds, which should help reduce the effects of the screen.

Although children can get regular free eye tests, the Association of Optometrists has published research that showed 24 per cent of children and young people between the ages of four to 16 have never been taken to an eye test by their parents or guardian – which is a shame because if a problem is identified, suitable treatments or aids can be made available.

It would be a pity if a child was experiencing difficulty with their eyesight (which could have an impact on their school work) all because an adult did not take advantage of what was readily on offer.

It’s not smacking, it’s an assault

The Green MSP John Finnie has proposed the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) Scotland Bill, which would ensure that parents or guardians who were accused of assaulting a child could no longer rely on the defence of “reasonable chastisement” and would, in effect, afford children the same protection from assault, under the law, as adults.

Opponents of the Bill have argued it would criminalise good parents and that child protection services would not be able to cope, which in itself is an admission of just how widespread this practice is.

But the Bill’s proposer has said: “My Bill aims to support parents to make positive choices. The Bill will not change the way that police and social work deal with assaults against children.”

Supporters of the Bill believe that parents who resort to violence have not only failed to act in a responsible manner but have also taught their child that violence is acceptable.

Mr Finnie’s Bill will garner enough support in the Scottish Parliament to become law which will not only be welcomed by children but also others who believe that this measure goes some way to protect their welfare.