As Shadow Minister for Public Health, Sharon spoke on behalf of the Opposition in a debate on junk food advertising and childhood obesity. In her speech, Sharon highlighted the affects junk food advertising has on children and high obesity rates in the UK. Sharon called for a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm watershed to tackle this issue.
You can read the full debate here: Junk Food Advertising and Childhood Obesity Westminster Hall
You can read Sharon's speech below:
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) for securing this important debate, and for sharing her knowledge in her passionate speech. I also thank the other hon. Members who have spoken this morning for their eloquent speeches: my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), the hon. Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Angus (Kirstene Hair), my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who spoke for the Scottish National party.
The UK has one of the worst obesity rates in Europe, with almost two in every three people either overweight or obese. I am, as hon. Members can see, one of those two. I am back on a strict diet post-new year, with no sugar or alcohol for the foreseeable future—if any hon. Members see me with either or both in my hand, please take them off me—and I hope that by August there will be a lot less of me.
I commend the honesty of the hon. Member for Strangford. I have been on a similar journey to him healthwise, and I hope to share his success weightwise. It is hard though—if it were easy, nobody would be overweight. We have not all got metabolisms as good as a horse, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire attests to. However, I started life as a skinny kid and was a slim teenager. I am proud to say that I was a size 10 when I got married, but I still ended up overweight as time went by. Therefore, I worry greatly when I see the stats, as I know we all do, for this country’s children.
As we have heard this morning, a pattern now emerges at a very early age. In 2016-17, almost a quarter of reception children aged between three and four were overweight or obese. In the same year, for pupils in year 6, it was more than a third. An obese child is five times more likely to grow up into an obese adult. I did not start as an obese child, and hon. Members can see where I got to, so it is important that the Government do all they can to ensure that child obesity rates are reduced as a matter of urgency.
As we know, obesity is linked with several health issues: lung and liver disease, heart attacks, strokes, seven or more types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes, all of which could be prevented with healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle. According to Cancer Research UK, continued eating and drinking patterns—alcohol is also a major factor in cancer—could lead to being overweight and obese and could cause an additional 670,000 cases of cancer in the UK over the next 20 years. Diabetes UK also warns that there are now 12.3 million people at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. If overweight and obesity levels were to be reduced, three in five cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented or delayed.
Obesity comes at a high financial cost too. Obesity and its related health problems cost the NHS in England an estimated £5.1 billion a year, projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050, if the Government and the people themselves fail to take any action—as we have heard in the debate, people need to take action for themselves. That is why this debate is so important. If we do not do anything about obesity today, the children of tomorrow are the ones who will suffer.
There are many ways to address obesity. No one intervention is a silver bullet, but it is the Opposition’s belief that action on advertising and marketing can make serious inroads.
Ten years ago, Ofcom’s restrictions on junk food advertising came into effect, but over that decade, our viewing habits have changed, as we have discussed. At that time, the Ofcom report said:
“Advertisements of high fat, salt and sugar products should not be shown in or around programmes specifically made for children...For the avoidance of doubt this measure will remove all HFSS advertising from dedicated children's channels”.
Ten years on, as we all know, that is incredibly outdated and out of touch with the way children watch TV. Children are likely to watch TV with their family or watch programmes that are not on specific children’s channels, such as “The X Factor”, “Britain’s Got Talent”, “Hollyoaks” and other programmes.
A report by the University of Liverpool found that 59% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time were for high fat, salt and sugar products and would have been banned from children’s TV. The same report also found that, in the worst case, children were bombarded with nine junk food adverts in just a 30-minute period and that adverts for fruit and vegetables made up only 1% of food and drink adverts shown during that family viewing time. Ofcom’s restrictions on junk food advertising are therefore totally obsolete and in need of a serious update to protect children from the bombardment of junk food advertising from multinational companies.
Many of the charities and organisations that provided me with briefings for this debate called for junk food advertising to be restricted until the 9 pm watershed on all channels, which was something I was pleased to commit to in the 2017 Labour party manifesto and am proud to remain committed to. I hope that the Minister will hear the calls today from hon. Members across the House and will see why an update of the restrictions is necessary.
Children must of course also be protected from other forms of advertising, such as billboard and bus shelter adverts, as well as subtle advertising in films and in made-for-purpose games, which are so prevalent there is a name for them—advergames. “Newsnight” last night noted that there are major concerns with the regulations around confectionary firms and their marketing to children. There seems to be a loophole in the law with regard to advergames, which needs to be closed.
There are also genuine games that are very popular with children although they are not aimed at them, such as Candy Crush—I have to admit to having tried that one myself—which embed advertising in the game and have been shown to drive children's food choices. Sponsorship has also been shown to have a huge impact on brand awareness and purchasing decisions among children. Products high in fat, salt and sugar are often found to sponsor sporting events or teams of which children are a key part of the audience. For example, Cadbury is the official snack partner of the premier league.
The current restrictions do not encapsulate those areas, and in our digital world it is important that our restrictions advance to protect children. Will the Minister commit to holding a cross-Departmental meeting with colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to discuss the urgency of addressing junk food marketing to children across those forums?
Not only do we watch TV and use the internet differently, but we also shop differently. Our sedentary lifestyles mean that we now rush into supermarkets trying to buy the quickest or cheapest products. As soon as we walk through the door, we are tempted with promotions, such as buy one get one free or three-for-two offers. Such discounts make up for more than half of all food sold in the UK, a higher proportion than in any other country in western Europe. We all love a bargain, but research has shown that 76% of purchases were unplanned and decided on in store, which shows the power of such promotions.
That trend is increasingly prevalent among families from poorer backgrounds who are not able to afford more expensive, nutritious and healthier food, or lack the skill to cook it. It is therefore no wonder that children aged five from poorer backgrounds are twice as likely to be obese, and that those aged 11 are three times as likely to be obese. Following what the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said, we also need affordable, healthy and nutritious products available on promotion to change habits.
I am sure the Minister will uphold the Government’s pledge to tackle childhood obesity, but their efforts are dwarfed by multinational corporations’ spending on junk food advertising. In 2016, the 18 highest-spending crisps, confectionary and sugary drinks brands together spent more than £143 million advertising their products. I recently met an advertising executive who has turned gamekeeper since having a damascene conversion—he now campaigns against added sugar and obesity. He told me how much effort multinational corps put into marketing specifically to children. It is not accidental, but a deliberate, well-thought-through and lucrative strategy.
Eighteen months ago, the Government launched their much-depleted childhood obesity plan, which left much to be desired. Will the Minister update us on the current situation of the childhood obesity plan? Will he commit to looking beyond it and going further by introducing the initiatives that have been suggested today, such as a 9 pm watershed on junk food marketing, which were sadly dropped from the original plan?
All of the arguments we have heard this morning point to the fact that essential Government action is needed to ensure our children grow up in a healthy environment so they can be fighting fit for the future. I hope the Minister will take these suggestions back to his Department and think about how they can be implemented into a serious drive to reduce childhood obesity over the next 10 years. Childhood obesity must be addressed. We cannot have a soft-touch approach. We must do this for future generations of children, and make a promise to them that they can be some of the healthiest children in the world.