Labour vows to ban ‘irresponsible’ cartoon characters on sugary cereals to tackle child obesity crisis

Refined sugar ‘every bit as deadly’ as tobacco, says Tom Watson as he calls out advertising executives for driving child obesity crisis

Kellogg’s cereals were updated with traffic light nutritional labelling last year but have kept ‘grossly irresponsible’ mascots on products like Coco Pops
Kellogg’s cereals were updated with traffic light nutritional labelling last year but have kept ‘grossly irresponsible’ mascots on products like Coco Pops

Tony the Tiger, Coco the Monkey and the menagerie of cartoon mascots that adorn children’s breakfast cereals would be banished from box fronts under a Labour government, deputy leader Tom Watson has said.

Refined sugar is “every bit as deadly” as tobacco, and the advertising industry’s tactic of using playful characters to appeal to children is “grossly irresponsible”, he is expected to tell industry officials on Wednesday.

Speaking at an Advertising Association conference, Mr Watson, who is shadow secretary for digital, culture, media and sport, will say the industry has played a central role in a twin obesity and dental crisis.

A third of children are leaving primary school obese or overweight, and 23 per cent of five-year-olds have one or more decaying, missing or filled tooth.

“[We are] a nation overweight, unhealthy and addicted to sugar – thanks in large part to the efforts of the advertising industry,” he will say.

“As politicians and policymakers we are saying, get that monkey off your back. If the industry won’t reform itself, we will do it for you.”

Cereals and cereal products account for the largest source of free sugars in the daily diets of British children up to the age of 10.

Cereals like Frosties contain 37g of sugar per 100g, Labour figures show. While the Cookie Crisp wolf, Sugar Puffs Honey Monster and Golden Nuggets prospector mascot all promote cereals containing 22g per 100g.

Older teenagers get more sugar from fizzy drinks, but the government has implemented a sugar tax to tackle this, as well as looking at restricting junk food advertising.

However, packaging avoids these rules, and cereal boxes have been likened to “billboards in the kitchen” and often include images of bowls which grossly exceed recommended portion sizes.

Research from Cardiff University showed children eating an equivalent bowlful would exceed their daily sugar allowance by 12.5 per cent in a single meal.

This is contributing to rising obesity levels and soaring rates of type 2 diabetes among ever younger children. Officials figures show 1,030 people under-20 were diagnosed with the condition in 2017, up from 605 in 2013.

Type 2 diabetes is largely driven by obesity and diet, where the body stops responding to insulin used to control blood sugar. Its complications have driven soaring rates of amputations, and treatment accounts for 10 per cent of NHS spending.

Mr Watson’s own diagnosis in 2017 inspired him to get fit and cut refined sugars and starchy carbohydrates from his diet. Changes which have seen his diabetes put into remission and helped him lose more than seven stone (45kg).

A jar of decayed teeth, including 16 from a two-year-old child, removed during a single afternoon in surgery (British Society of Paediatric Dentistry)

While advertising scores below politicians and journalists in surveys of public trust, he said the industry can change that by focusing its energies

“We’ve changed our culture, and the ban on tobacco advertising and changes to the regulations on packaging were part of that healthy revolution.

“What was true of tobacco can be true of refined sugar, which is every bit as deadly.”

To drive home his message he will use images of the decaying teeth collected in a single afternoon, including 16 from a two-year-old child, by Claire Stevens CBE, a paediatric dental consultant also known as “the tooth fairy”.

The pledge follows calls from MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee last summer to act on junk food mascots.

The government has been criticised for being slow to tackle the child obesity crisis, though it is currently considering bans on energy drink sales to under-16s and junk food promotions as part of the second stage of its obesity strategy.

A Kellogg’s spokesperson said: “We think people know that we’ve been working hard to offer healthier choices in the morning – we’ve slashed sugar in Coco Pops by 40 per cent, removed high-sugar Ricicles from sale and dropped the sugar in Rice Krispies too.

“At the same time, we’ve introduced new transparent labelling so people can make their own mind up about what they want to buy or not.”

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