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Voluntary rules will not stem the obesity epidemic

Without prompt action, obesity could cause 70,000 new cases of cancer in the UK in the next two decades, warns Cancer Research UK

Dr Jyotsna Vohra, head of policy research for prevention, Cancer Research UK, talks about the dangers of junk food marketing

Most people don’t know that extra inches around our waist increase our risk of developing cancer, and worryingly there has been a steady increase in obesity rates in the UK over the last two decades.

watershed advertising viewing
Junk food is often advertised duirng family TV programmes. Picture Getty. Posed by models.

Cancer Research UK has shown if nothing is done, obesity could cause 670,000 new cases of cancer over the next 20 years in the UK. This would make obesity the single biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.

Right now, one in three children in England are overweight or obese when they leave primary school. And an obese child is five times more likely to be an obese adult with an increased risk of developing cancer.

Silver bullet

Exercise is an important part of maintaining a healthy weight, but it’s not the silver bullet to tackle obesity.

If we want to tackle the obesity epidemic, research has shown marketing of junk food needs to stop during popular family TV viewing, and set mandatory targets for industry to reduce the amount of fat and sugar in food.


A year ago the government promised action to tackle the staggeringly high levels of children's obesity across the country through a game-changing strategy that would make a real difference to our children’s health.

But instead of a comprehensive strategy we’ve got a plan which will not do enough to tackle children’s obesity. 

Academics, medical professionals and health charities have provided the government with clear evidence: children who see junk food adverts are more likely to eat unhealthy food. If restrictions were in place before the 9pm watershed, children’s exposure to advertising would be more than halved.

Cartoon characters

The reasons these adverts are so successful are clear. A range of tactics are used to promote junk food, including cartoon characters, celebrity endorsement and movie tie-ins. Marketing junk food influences both what kind of food children choose to buy and the brands they prefer – setting them up for a lifetime of unhealthy choices.

The government acknowledges that junk food marketing is a problem.

It has already removed junk food TV adverts during children’s programming. But most children watch TV from 7-8pm, which is not covered. Public Health England’s evidence review is also clear that all forms of marketing influence children. So it’s time to close the loophole during family viewing time as well.

No penalties

We welcome the commitment to support a levy on the soft drinks industry, a measure that is tried and tested.

The voluntary targets for reducing fat and sugar in food, with no penalties for industry, will not protect our next generation from cancer or illness. Nor will they help to reduce the crippling weekly bill obesity imposes on the NHS of almost £1 billion.

This is missing the chance to help ensure the NHS is in a fit state to improve care for those who are diagnosed with cancer in the future.

Unless the government acts now, future generations will face ill-health, develop cancers that could have been avoided, and leave an already overburdened NHS unable to cope.

More information

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Jyotsna Vohra is head of policy research for prevention, Cancer Research UK 

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