The new rules – reportedly the toughest digital marketing restrictions in the world – would add to guidelines announced in July banning ‘junk food’ ads before 9pm on television.
Government has launched a six-week consultation to gather views from the public and industry stakeholders to understand the impact and challenges of introducing a total ban of HFSS advertising online.
Public health minister Jo Churchill said: “We have already committed to restricting HFSS adverts on television before 9pm. But we also need to go further and address how children can be influenced online, where they are spending more and more of their time.
“This is part of a package of measures to help families. We want to support people of all ages to make healthier choices.”
Not enough time
However, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) head of UK diet and health policy Kate Halliwell warned the food and drink industry had not been given enough time to respond to the proposals.
“It beggars belief that Government would launch such an important and technically involved consultation at this time and with just six weeks to respond,” said Halliwell. “The length of the consultation potentially hampers industry’s ability to respond effectively at a time when businesses are facing enormous pressure.
“It could not come at a worse time for food and drink manufacturers – the industry is preparing for its busiest time of the year and working flat out to keep the nation fed through lockdown, all while facing down the very real threat of a no-deal Brexit.”
The introduction of a sweeping ban of HFSS food ads online could also threaten the future of foodservice operations in the UK.
Andrew Crook, vice chair of the British Takeaway Campaign, said: “The Government risks clobbering thousands of independent takeaways and restaurants, from fish and chip shops to kebab houses and everything else in between, at a time when many are already reeling. These local businesses do not have multi-million-pound advertising campaigns.
Social media ‘shop window’
“For them, social media is their shop window, especially when we’re in and out of lockdown. Removing their ability to advertise on Instagram or Facebook robs them of a crucial way to reach customers, when nobody knows what the future holds and takeaways continue to have a vital role in keeping the nation fed.”
Despite criticism from the food and drink industry, the Government’s proposals were backed by pressure group Action on Sugar (AoS).
Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of AoS said: “As the message from the Government has been to 'stay home' for much of the year in the fight against COVID-19, this will have no doubt vastly increased children’s exposure to such irresponsible marketing which casts unhealthy products in the spotlight.
“It’s therefore vital that a total ban across all online platforms is introduced which would ensure that all loopholes, including paid-for promotions whereby brands are using marketing techniques to push junk food ads, would be firmly closed and help turn the tide on obesity."