Ofcom dithers over curbs on junk food adverts

The television regulator Ofcom has infuriated health campaigners by failing to announce a ban on advertising junk food to children.

It is two years since the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, asked Ofcom to develop "targeted" plans to curb the adverts, and campaigners were expecting to be told details of the action it intended to take. But instead of coming up with a concrete plan, Ofcom announced yesterday a new round of consultation on four proposals, all of which fell short of campaigners' calls for a ban on junk food adverts before the 9pm watershed, when children are no longer supposed to be watching television.

The 10-week consultation will further delay the start of a ban that Ofcom had been expected to announce last summer, at a time when doctors are warning of growing childhood obesity.

Ed Mayo, chief executive of the National Consumer Council, said: "None of these proposals goes anywhere near what's needed to redress the imbalance in TV advertising of unhealthy food to children - and so help tackle childhood obesity. Ofcom should have been bolder."

Ofcom proposed four methods of controlling junk food adverts, combined with a stricter code from the Committee on Advertising Practice that would ban celebrities and famous cartoon characters from appearing in food and drink commercials targeted at children under 10.

Adverts for Walkers crisps starring the former England footballer Gary Lineker could fall foul of the rules on celebrities. But Kellogg's promotions for sugary cereals such as Frosties featuring Tony the Tiger would escape the rule on cartoon heroes because they are the brands' own characters.

Ofcom's first proposal would ban junk food advertising and sponsorship from all shows specifically made for children, or those of "particular appeal" to children aged nine and under, such as The Simpsons, soaps and reality television shows. The second proposal would ban all food and drink commercials and sponsorship from those shows.

The third would limit the volume of food and drink adverts when children are most likely to be watching, at breakfast time and between 3pm and 8pm on weekdays and from 6am to 8pm at weekends.

The fourth proposal would be a combination of the above "which commands industry support". Any of the first three proposals would cut the amount of junk food commercials seen by children by half, according to Ofcom.

The watchdog said it was proving hard to find support among interest groups it had consulted, which included food manufacturers and advertisers. It explained: "In discussions with a broad range of organisations, it has become clear that there is currently no consensus on the most appropriate course of action beyond a general agreement that some form of action is appropriate and necessary."

Sue Davies, the chief policy adviser at Which?, formerly the Consumers' Association, said: "After a year of consideration, Ofcom has failed to seize the opportunity to tackle childhood obesity and related health problems. Ofcom has merely acted to pacify industry interests in the short term."

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