Better regulation needed to protect children from junk food ads

Thursday, 16 May, 2019

Better regulation needed to protect children from junk food ads

A global study has revealed that industry self-regulation of food advertising is ineffective, as children are exposed to more junk food marketing on television in countries with self-regulation than those in unregulated countries. The researchers suggest restricting unhealthy food marketing is a global priority for obesity prevention.

“Food industry self-regulatory codes to limit children’s exposure to food marketing have been ineffective globally — countries with these codes have worse rates of junk food advertising on TV than countries with no regulations,” explained Bridget Kelly, lead author and Associate Professor from University of Wollongong’s Early Start Research and School of Health and Society.

The researchers collected 11,191 hours of television broadcast data from 22 countries between 2008 and 2017. Advertisements were coded using the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on which food and drink products should be permitted to be advertised to children.

Products WHO recommends not to be marketed to children include chocolate and confectionery, cakes and sweet biscuits, juices, and energy drinks. It also recommends that products high in total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, total sugar, added sugar, non-sugar sweeteners, salt and/or energy not be advertised to children.

On average, there were four times as many advertisements for unhealthy products as there were for healthy products, and the frequency of those advertisements was 35% higher during children’s peak viewing times.

The study also revealed that during peak viewing times, the volume of advertisements for unhealthy products was higher in countries with industry codes of practice for responsible advertising compared with countries with no policies.

Globally, almost one in five people aged 5 to 19 years were overweight or obese in 2016, and the prevalence of obesity in young people has increased tenfold in the last 40 years.

Kelly said the study showed the need for governments worldwide to enact regulation to protect children from television advertising of products that undermine their health.

“There is a large body of evidence that shows the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children has a negative influence on children’s food knowledge, preferences, consumption, diet quality and health.

“Industry self-regulation has been shown to be ineffective. It is time for governments around the world to step in and regulate the advertising of unhealthy foods to children.”

In 2010, 193 WHO Member States endorsed a resolution to restrict the marketing of food and drink products high in saturated fat, trans fat, free sugars and/or sodium to children and adolescents. To date, this has mostly been addressed by industry self-regulatory programs, which have been particularly ineffective with multinational corporations.

In the study sample, one-third of all food and beverage advertisements originated from just 10 companies with a combined market value of more than $1400 billion.

“Companies that contribute most to unhealthy food marketing on TV do so across all markets — these are huge, powerful multinational companies with substantial political pull, which impacts on the ability and willingness of governments to regulate to protect children,” Kelly said.

The study was published in the journal Obesity Reviews.

Image credit: © Anna

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