Ban on advertising junk food to children 'will fail'

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The Independent Online

A ban on junk-food advertising on television will fail to protect children watching popular programmes, research has shown.

None of the top 20 shows watched by children on ITV1 will fall under the terms of a ban on ads for foods high in fat, salt and sugar, the consumer group Which? found.

Ofcom, the media regulator, is phasing in the restrictions over the next two years as part of a government-inspired campaign to cut obesity. More than 2.5 million children in England are overweight or obese.

Last summer, Ofcom rejected a 9pm watershed for junk-food ads, but decided to bar them from programmes with a high proportion of child viewers.

Mainstream TV channels will have until January 2008, and children's television channels until January 2009, to implement the ban, which will hit programmes with more than 20 per cent of viewers aged under 16.

Which? said its study of ITV1 shows between 28 May and 10 June showed that the prohibition would not be effective because children's favourite shows were prime-time programmes popular with adults. So even though shows such as Emmerdale were the most popular among youngsters, the fact that far more adults were watching meant they did not fall within the restrictions. Which? said that meant that none of the top 20 shows and only seven of the top 50 shows watched by children would be free of adverts for chocolate, cola, burgers and pizza.

For example, while Avatar: The Legend of Aang, would be covered by the restrictions, Coronation Street, with more than five times the number of viewers under 16, would not. Similarly, while the restrictions would apply to Bratz, they would not cover Britain's Got Talent, which has over four times as many child viewers.

Which? chief policy advisor, Sue Davies, said: "The new controls will clearly fail children as none of the programmes with the highest viewing figures for 4- to 15- year-olds are covered. The only way to ensure that the majority of children are not exposed to ads for unhealthy foods is by introducing a 9pm watershed."

Ofcom responded that imposing a ban during prime-time shows would be disproportionate. A spokeswoman said: "Given that between 6pm and 9pm there are nine adults watching the commercial public service channels for every child under 16, a 9pm watershed ban would clearly have an effect on many more adults than children."

The regulator has estimated that its ban will cut the number of junk-food ads viewed by children by 41 per cent at a cost to broadcasters of £39m, against a cost to broadcasters of a 9pm ban of £263m.

Even if there is no change from the current ban, Europe may intervene to tackle obesity. The European Commission health commissioner Markos Kyprianou warned last month that Europe's food and drink industry could face new regulations if it did not tackle the problem.