The devil is in the detail: ensuring a recipe for successful policy development

A young child using a tablet

Kate Oldridge-Turner and Ioana Vlad from the Policy and Public Affairs team mull over why the devil is in the detail when responding to new policy announcements in light of news about the UK online junk food marketing ban.

The UK’s new online junk food marketing ban and pre-watershed broadcast restrictions were a bit of a surprise announcement in the Queen’s Speech as many public health policy advocates worried that they would be dropped from the UK obesity strategy.

The measures overcame significant opposition from the food and advertising industries and have been touted as a victory for public health… and the nanny state. However much of the detail of the legislation remains unknown, and obesity campaigners need to keep their eye on the ball to ensure the proposal becomes reality.

Regulating digital spaces and food and drink marketing is a new and complex area, and careful attention needs to be paid to definitions and scope to ensure that the policy is not watered down or left with wide open loopholes rendering it weak or, worse, useless.

Guidance exists – should it be needed

Luckily, we are starting to understand more about the mechanisms of this policy area. Actors such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have developed guidance on how to monitor and restrict unhealthy food advertisements in the online environment. Such guidance is vital because for a long time we simply did not know what kind of ads children saw online, on the different platforms or apps they use the most, and how much of this content was specifically targeted to them.

We now know it is pervasive, ranging from traditional, easily recognisable ads to the use of kid influencers and the gamification of advertising to children. Further, it is ever-changing: in the future, targeted advertising could be increasingly delivered even on outdoors digital displays, based on harvesting mobile phone data of anyone passing by.

From the outset there has been clear opposition to the policy, with arguments challenging the evidence base and the possible impact on food and advertising industry, especially at a time when companies are battling financial losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most ignore the fact that while individual calorie reduction may be small, the population level reductions are huge. They argue that the measures are too blunt and heavy, and lean towards industry-led self-regulation instead – only we know this approach is often too weak. However, as 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, it’s clear that obesogenic environments need to be tackled with a strong range of measures.

The online ban has captured the attention of policymakers and civil society from around the world, who watch with interest to see how the UK manages the regulation, and whether something similar can be adopted in their own country. Like campaigners in the UK, they will be interested in the granularity of the regulation and how it will be put together and enforced.

Ready and able to advise

While the attention-grabbing headlines may fade away, pressure must remain to ensure that the policy is robustly developed. Our consultation response outlined advice on a range of elements that the policy should consider, such as being mandatory and having a strong enforcement mechanism.

Our Building Momentum reports brilliantly document the ways in which stakeholders can work together and the processes needed to ensure this happens, including how to make sure that the voices of children and young people are not lost in developing policies that affect them. They also highlight examples of where industry undermines a regulation.

This scenario is familiar to us at WCRF, as we’ve written to governments to reiterate the need for legislation and enforcement – such as to the government of Mexico over huge amounts of opposition and legal action against a new labelling regulation.

We’ll be keeping a watchful eye on how this policy develops and will be on hand to share knowledge and expertise where we can. And as soon as more information is published about the legislation, we’ll review this with interest so we can get a better idea of how the policy will work, who it will include, who it protects and how it will be monitored and enforced.

And it’s not just online marketing – we’ll also monitor other policy developments, such as the UK government’s plans to introduce menu calorie labelling – which is a less-utilised policy approach. The detail that sits behind the announcement will be important so that businesses and health advocates together can understand how the policy will work at an implementation level. The OHA has a great blog post about this forthcoming policy initiative.

So, yes, while we always welcome announcements and recognise them as a very important political step forward, what gets us excited is the detail.