Tuesday 24 September 2019

'Public health' launches a preemptive strike on Ofcom

UPDATE: Ofcom’s former Principal Economist has been in touch with his own rebuttal to the study discussed below. Read his response here.

On the face of it, this is a pretty odd thing to see published in BMJ Open. Three 'public health' academics looked at every response to a 2006 public consultation on food advertising restrictions, which ultimately led to the UK government banning adverts for 'junk food' (high in fat, sugar or salt or HFSS) during children's television.

The consultation was run by Ofcom, the broadcast regulator. The authors divide the respondents into 'pro-industry and pro-public health groups' (because that is how the world looks from their perspective) and conclude:

Our paper highlights how, despite the relative transparency of the 2006–2007 consultation, the final policy appeared to be substantially influenced by stakeholders. 

Isn't that the point of a consultation?

The authors focus on five key questions in the consultation and look at the responses from the two groups.

Should restrictions apply to all foods?

Both groups agreed that the restrictions should not apply to all food.

Total ban or volume based ban?

A volume based ban was 'nearly universally disliked'.

Restrictions on children’s programming or a pre-9pm watershed ban?

The authors note that: 'Although not included in any of Ofcom’s proposals, one of the consultation questions asked about whether restricting advertising before 9pm would be a suitable measure.' Unsurprisingly, the 'public health' groups leapt at the chance to extend the ban while the 'pro-industry' groups opposed it.

To what ages of children should the restrictions apply?

Ofcom's original proposal was to restrict advertisements targeted at children aged 4–9 years. 'Pro-industry groups' supported this. 'Public health' groups called for the ban to apply to children aged 4-15 years.

When should the restrictions start, ie. how long should the transition period be?

'Public health' groups, being the business experts that they are, said no transition period was necessary. 'Pro-industry groups' said that they needed a transition period.

In line with what both groups supported, the final legislation did not apply to all food and was not volume based. In line with what the 'public health' groups wanted, the age range was extended to 4-15 years. In line with what the 'pro-industry' groups wanted, there was a transition period and the ban was not extended to the 9pm watershed - although the latter was, to repeat, never part of the original proposal.

What does this tell us? According to the authors, it tells us that...

Ofcom’s decision to implement modified package 1 contained concessions to commercial as well as civil society and public health stakeholders.

This is true and therefore intolerable from their perspective. They go on...

However, ultimately, industry arguments appeared to hold more sway, with the main concession to public health groups being expanding restrictions from children aged 4–9 years to those aged 4 –15 years. Ofcom appeared to believe that the commercial impact of the regulation of advertising should carry greatest weight, even when the aim of the regulation was to protect children’s health. As such, Ofcom did not formally consider a pre-9pm ban as part of any of its packages, as had been proposed by public health and civil society stakeholders, although one of the consultation questions did refer to a pre-9pm ban.

Really?! Ofcom stuck to its original proposal and capitulated to the 'public health' lobby on the age range. It seems that anything less than total capitulation to the most extreme nanny state voices plus gold-plating would have 'compromised' the legislation in these people's eyes.

They further complain that...

Ofcom appeared to balance arguments related to commercial and public interests, in terms of jobs and the wider economy, with those relating to public health.

And that, apparently, is a bad thing.

What is the purpose of this bizarre study raking over a 13 year old consultation? There seems to be no reason for it to exist.

Until you remember that the government has recently consulted on extending the ban on food advertising, and the 'public health' lobby is trying to sideline and intimidate Ofcom. Hence the way this study was press released and reported...

Doctors slam broadcasting regulator Ofcom for 'being influenced' by the junk food industry after it turned down a 9pm watershed for adverts in 2009
Doctors say media watchdog Ofcom should no longer be allowed to set rules on junk food adverts.

They claim the watchdog is influenced by broadcasters and the food industry, and this may have prevented a 9pm 'watershed' for junk food ads being brought in to protect children.

Doctors working in public health looked at the last major regulations on advertising unhealthy food to children, introduced in 2009.

They say Ofcom appeared to prioritise commercial considerations over children's health, begging the question of whether its 'duty to protect broadcasting interests' should allow it to lead public health regulation.

Nothing happens in the world of 'public health' research without a reason. Everything is political.

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