Letter to the Prime Minister from health and children’s organisations, acacademic experts and campaigners

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Letter to the Prime Minister from health and children’s organisations, acacademic experts and campaigners

On 1st April the Obesity Health Alliance sent a letter to Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, signed by Food Active and 96 other UK health and children’s organisations, academic experts and individual campaigners to encourage him to move ahead with landmark plans to remove junk food adverts from online platforms and social media.

Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP
Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service
10 Downing Street
London, SW1A 2AA

Dear Prime Minister,

We write to you as representatives of health and children’s organisations, health practitioners, academic experts, and campaigners in public health to strongly encourage you to forge ahead with landmark proposals to end almost all unhealthy food and drink adverts online, which will protect children from the influence of junk food marketing.

As we emerge from the second devastating wave of COVID-19, two things are clear to us. Firstly, the UK’s disease and death toll has been exacerbated by high rates of obesity and ill health directly caused by poor diet, causing untold suffering to thousands of families, and putting extreme strain on the NHS. A recent study of nearly 7million UK patients found a direct linear relationship with BMI and hospitalisation and death (with a particularly marked effect in younger people), making it clear that this is a problem of excess weight, not just obesity[1]. Secondly, we are now at a crossroads, where we can either build on what we have learnt from the pandemic or go back to the status quo ante where poor diet and related ill-health is increasingly the norm and will pose even greater risks for population health and resilience in the future. While the immediate threat of COVID-19 may subside, weight related illness and its subsequent impact on society and the economy will remain until we effectively address obesity.

Landmark policies
When you launched ‘Tackling Obesity’ in July 2020, we were strongly encouraged by a comprehensive plan with commendable landmark, evidence-based policies to curb the flood of high fat, sugar and salt food and drink marketing on TV, online and in shops. This package of measures is supported by us all and welcomed by the public – with 74% of people supporting government action to reduce obesity[2]. Restrictions on advertising have been backed by the Health Select Committee and welcomed in part 1 of the National Food Strategy.  If these policies are aligned and implemented fully, they will be important steps on the road back to better health for our children and bring benefits to the wider population too.

Sector growth
There is well-documented evidence that the public has been eating more snacks and take-away food in the last year, and that is borne out by sales figures showing substantial growth of these sectors.

We understand there are concerns from the parts of industry most affected by these proposals. It is fair to examine the feasibility and impact of exempting small, independent businesses from the online restrictions, or products that do not contribute significantly to child obesity for example. However, the majority of digital advertising spend originates from larger retailers, delivery platforms and multinational brands. This is where the focus of restrictions should rightly be.

Advertising works. It increases sales of the product concerned and of products in the same category. That’s why companies spend millions on it every year and it’s simply disingenuous for them to suggest otherwise. While one doughnut every now and again is unlikely to significantly affect energy consumption, advertising directly shapes the wider social and cultural norms around food preferences and dietary patterns and children (and adults) are deluged with marketing that is skewed towards the least healthy options. Dev Sharma, a 15-year-old Youth Board member of BiteBack 2030 told us, “The food companies say they don’t target children. But me and my friends feel bombarded by junk food adverts, they are everywhere. I get more messages from UberEats than I do from my Grandma. It is overwhelming and not good for our health.”

Like the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, a well-designed policy will incentivise the food industry to switch to advertising their healthier products or consider reformulating their borderline products. The research is clear that most companies have the capacity to do this[3]. Indeed, emerging evidence from Transport for London’s junk food advertising ban shows an increase in revenue as companies switched their adverts. Likewise, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has led to an increase in sales of lower sugar drinks and soft drinks overall, and significant sector growth.

Working together for a healthier nation
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the brutal health inequalities that exist within our society, and we know that inequalities in rates of overweight and obesity amongst children are increasing, along with stark inequalities in other diet-related conditions such as dental decay. In order to level up the country, and ensure every child has the best start in life, this must be addressed.

We share your vision of a healthier population. Allowing the online environment to continue to be flooded with adverts for fast-food, crisps and confectionery limits the need for industry to change its behaviour and will significantly undermine other Government efforts to improve public health. Now is the time for ambitious, world-leading policies that put health first and are not weakened by vested interests.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and your advisors so the young people we work with can show you the sheer volume of junk food marketing they see and discuss how we can work together. Please do contact caroline.cerny@obesityhealthalliance.org.uk to arrange a meeting with representatives of the signatories to this letter.

We look forward to hearing your response in due course.


  1. Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive, British Heart Foundation
  2. Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, Chair of British Medical Association Board of Science
  3. Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive, Cancer Research UK
  4. Professor Rachel Batterham, Special adviser on obesity, Royal College of Physicians
  5. Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Improvement, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
  6. Chris Askew, Chief Executive, Diabetes UK
  7. James Toop, Chief Executive, Bite Back 2030
  8. Anna Taylor, Executive Director, Food Foundation
  9. Professor Simon Capewell, Faculty of Public Health
  10. Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, President, Association of Directors of Public Health
  11. Dame Professor Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive & General Secretary, Royal College of Nursing 
  12. Caroline Cerny, Lead, Obesity Health Alliance
  13. Mr Matthew Garrett, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of England
  14. Sarah Hickey, Programme Director – Childhood Obesity, Impact on Urban Health
  15. Ben Reynolds, Deputy Chief Executive, Sustain: the Alliance for Better Food and Farming
  16. Caroline Bovey RD BEM – Chair, British Dietetic Association
  17. Johanna Ralston, CEO, World Obesity Federation
  18. Professor Graham MacGregor, Chair, Action on Salt and Sugar
  19. Rachael Gormley, Chief Executive, World Cancer Research Fund 
  20. Katharine Jenner, CEO, Blood Pressure UK
  21. Lorraine Tulloch, Programme Lead, Obesity Action Scotland
  22. Andy Glyde, Co-chair, Obesity Alliance Cymru
  23. Fran Bernhardt, Coordinator, Children’s Food Campaign
  24. Michael Baber, Director, Health Action Campaign 
  25. Matthew Philpott, Executive Director, Food Active and Healthy Stadia
  26. Martin Tod, Chief Executive, Men’s Health Forum
  27. Alison Taylor, Chief Executive, Children’s Liver Disease Foundation
  28. Professor Philip Taylor, Dean of The Faculty of Dental Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh 
  29. Dr Ian Mills, Dean, The Faculty of General Dental Practice UK
  30. Nick Grossman, Trustee – Obesity Action UK
  31. Christina Marriott, Chief Executive, Royal Society for Public Health. 
  32. Kim Roberts, Chief Executive, HENRY
  33. Jessica Attard, Head of Food & Health, Healthy Markets Campaign, ShareAction
  34. June O’Sullivan, CEO London Early Years Foundation
  35. Eddie Crouch, Chair, British Dental Association
  36. Dr Nigel Carter, Chief Executive, Oral Health Foundation
  37. Stephanie Slater, Chief Executive, School Food Matters
  38. Dr Helen Crawley, First Steps Nutrition Trust
  39. Rob Percival, Head of Policy, Soil Association
  40. Dr Maria Bryant, Chair, UK Association for the Study of Obesity
  41. Janet Clarke MBE, Chair of Trustees, The College of General Dentistry
  42. Eddie Morris, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
  43. Professor Guruprasad Aithal, President of British Association for the Study of the Liver
  44. Alysa Remtulla, Head of Policy and Campaigns, Magic Breakfast
  45. UK Public Health Network Executive Group
  46. Dr Tim Lobstein, Senior Policy Advisor, World Obesity Federation
  47. Tam Fry chairman and spokesman, National Obesity Forum
  48. Dr Anna Dixon, Chief Executive, Centre for Ageing Better
  49. Vicky Gilroy RGN, RSCN, RHV, PGCE, MSc,FIHV, Institute of Health Visiting
  50. Neville Rigby, International Obesity Forum
  51. Debora Howe, Chair of National Oral Health Promotion Group
  52. Somen Banerjee, Co-Chair, London Association of Directors of Public Health
  53. Purnima Tanuku OBE, Chief Executive, National Day Nurseries Association
  54. Fiona Ellwood BEM President Society of British Dental Nurses
  55. Margaret McCabe, Chief Executive, Debate Mate
  56. Sally Bunday MBE, Founder and Director, Hyperactive Children’s Support Group
  57. Jamie Oliver, Chef and Campaigner
  58. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
  59. Thomasina Miers, co-founder Wahaca
  60. David Gandy, international supermodel, designer, columnist
  61. Jan Gooding, President, Market Research Society
  62. Dr Chris van Tulleken, TV presenter, BBC and C4
  63. Professor Paul Aveyard, Professor Behavioural Medicine, University of Oxford
  64. Professor Corinna Hawkes, Director, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London
  65. Dr Lauren Carters-White, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Edinburgh 
  66. Professor Martin White, Professor of Population Health Research, MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge
  67. Professor Amandine Garde, School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool
  68. Prof Jeff Collin, Professor of Global Health Policy, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Edinburgh
  69. Dr Rob Ralston, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Edinburgh
  70. Prof Mark Petticrew, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  71. Professor Linda Bauld, Bruce and John Usher Chair in Public Health at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the SPECTRUM Research Consortium
  72. Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies, The Open University 
  73. Professor Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, World Food Prize Winner, and Chair of Action Track 1 of UN Food Systems Summit, on Ensuring Access to Safe Nutritious Food for All
  74. Professor John Wass, Professor of Endocrinology at Oxford University
  75. Dr Emma Boyland, Institute of Population Health, University of Liverpool
  76. Professor Jason C G Halford, President Elect of the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO), University of Leeds
  77. Dr Mark Green, University of Liverpool
  78. Professor David Baldwin, Consultant Respiratory Physician, Nottingham University Hospitals
  79. Dr Laura Nellums, Assistant Professor in Global Health, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham
  80. Professor Rachael Murray, Professor of Population Health, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Nottingham
  81. Professor Andrew Rugg-Gunn, Professor Emeritus, Newcastle University School of Dental Sciences
  82. Professor Jacob George, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Therapeutics, Ninewells Hospital
  83. Professor Feng He, Professor of Global Health Research, Queen Mary University of London
  84. Dr Simon Williams, Associate Professor, University of Wales Trinity Saint David
  85. Dr Nicola Heslehurst, Senior Lecturer in Maternal Nutrition, Newcastle University
  86. Julia Knight, Consultant and Assistant Professor in Public Health, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham
  87. Dr Alexander Barker, SPECTRUM Research Consortium, University of Nottingham
  88. Stacey Makin, Integrated Care Communities Manager, North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust
  89. Colin Cox, Director of Public Health, Cumbria County Council
  90. Katrina Stephens, Director of Public Health, Oldham Council
  91. Sarah McNulty, Acting Director of Public Health, Knowsley Council
  92. Andrea Fallon Director of Public Health and Wellbeing, Rochdale Borough Council
  93. Caitlin Thomas, Corporate Health Manager, GLL
  94. Margaret Jones, Director of Public Health, Sefton Council
  95. Cllr Ian Moncur, Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing, Sefton Council
  96. Emma Mould, Partnership Coordinator, Registered Nutritionist, Food Newcastle
  97. Megan Waring, Head of Nutrition, Caterlink – SugarSmart Primary School Ambassador

[1] Gao M et al (2021). Associations of body mass index with severity of SARS-CoV-2 infection in a community-based cohort of 6.9 million people in England. Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. In Press.

[2] Polling conducted by the Obesity Health Alliance. Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,085 UK adults aged 18+ online from the 22nd to 25th May 2020. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of the UK population by age, gender, region and social grade.

[3] Cancer Research UK analysis. https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/health/tv-ads-for-food-and-drink-still-dominated-by-hfss-products-finds-new-research/602420.article

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