Government attempts to fight childhood obesity by banning adverts for junk food is being hampered by such programmes as The X Factor and Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, the Prime Minister's adviser on obesity has admitted.
A ban was introduced in January on adverts for foods high in salt, sugar or fat during programmes whose viewers were mainly under the age of 16. It did not, however, affect the programmes with an audience mainly made up of adults, even though many more children watch them.
Among the programmes affected was the children's cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants, which attracts about 170,000 child viewers. But Saturday Night Takeaway, a family show watched by more than a million children, was not.
New research has concluded the number of times children watch junk-food adverts during these family programmes has risen in the past two years by 26 per cent. The figures come from Dr Will Cavendish, director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health, who described the trend as "worrying" at a time when almost a third of 11-year-olds are classified as overweight or obese.
In a report to the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum, Dr Cavendish said ministers could take tougher action. "We know large numbers of children are still seeing TV ads for high fat, sugar and salt food and drink, though in programmes not specifically aimed at children," he wrote.
The figures will fuel calls for a total ban on junk food ads before the 9pm watershed. A private member's Bill to that effect, introduced by the Labour MP Nigel Griffiths, will receive its second reading this month. It aims also to create "significant restrictions" on marketing on the internet.
The limitations of the current ban were predicted last year by a Which? study that found none of the top 20 shows and only seven of the top 50 shows watched by children would be free of adverts for junk food.