Hot Topic: Advertising of Junk Food

Context for this post

As part of our Part A preparation, each week we write a briefing on a current ‘hot topic’ which has public health implications.  A useful document to guide choice of ‘hot topics’ has been the Faculty of Public Health  manifesto “12 Steps to Better Public Health”. Below is my briefing plus wider discussion on the advertising of junk food on TV.

FPH Manifesto Summary 

  • A recent Which? report criticised the 2006 Ofcom measures to ban junk food advertising between programmes where 20% of the audience were <16
  • The current measures are ineffectual and fail to cover programmes such as soaps which are still watched by large numbers of young people.
  • A complete ban before the 9pm watershed is needed to effectively reduce consumption of salt, saturated fats and sugars by children and adolescents, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

The problem

  • According to the Department of Health, £838million was spent on food and drink advertising in the UK in 2007.
  • Junk food marketing contradicts messages about healthy eating, undermining children’s ability to choose better food and parents’ efforts to feed them healthily.
  • To combat the rise of childhood obesity it is vitally important that children are persuaded to eat more healthily.
  • Food Standards Agency suggest junk food marketing directly influences children’s food preferences, and indirectly influences what family and friends consider to be a ‘normal’ diet. 

Current regulations

  • Prevent the advertising of “less healthy” products during children’s TV programming. 
    • 70 percent of the television that children watch is outside the hours of ‘children’s TV’ that these rules cover,
    • Research from Which? in 2007 reported that that 18 of the 20 most popular programs watched by children under 16 were not be covered.
  • Products must pass the FSA nutrient profile model prior to Ofcom giving permission to advertise.
    • Points are given for fat, salt and sugar.  If the score is too high, the product is not allowed to be advertised.

A solution being lobbied for is a 9pm watershed for junk food adverts, which has been suggested to have the following benefits:

  1. Protect children: This will eliminate over 80% of instances of kids watching junk food TV advertising.  The current rules only protect children from half this much advertising.
  2. Support parents: It will provide clarity on when junk food adverts will be shown, allowing parents to exercise responsibility over whether their kids see such adverts.  
  3. Improve children’s health: Estimates show that the health benefits from a 9pm watershed for junk food TV adverts will save the nation up to almost a billion pounds a year – at a cost to industry of  £130 million a year, and no cost to the government.

A series of surveys have demonstrated that the majority of parents are in favour of a protecting their children from junk food advertising:

  • BHF survey found that 68% of parents were in favour of pre-9pm junk food advertising restrictions, with only 7% against.
  • Which? found in 2006 that 79% of parents believe unhealthy foods should not be advertised during the times children are most likely to be watching television.

There are currently no legal restrictions on non-broadcast junk food marketing aimed at children. 

  • This category includes marketing through sponsorship, packaging, text messaging and the internet. 
  • This is a growing form of advertising aimed at children and its omission from statutory regulation is a loophole often exploited by food companies.

Therefore… there appears to be a lot of support for a 9pm watershed to be put into place, however what true effect this will have will be difficult to measure because there are so many sources of influence upon the perceptions and desires of children.  Although I feel supportive of this campaign, it’s underlying premise suggests that exposure to adverts is the most important factor… what other influences could be important?  Have these been considered?  E.g. previous exposure to different foods (e.g. junk vs. healthy), parenting styles, friends/peers at school, ease of accessing healthy food…etc.  In essense, my point is that this campaign will only be worthwhile if it is complimented by other relevant actions which encourage behaviour change as realistically we do not know which influences are the greatest (and influences are likely to be different for different individuals).  This policy is a step in the right direction, however when one considers that the sponsors for the 2012 Olympics include Coca-Cola, Cadburys and McDonalds (and no companies representing healthy consumption) one cannot help but be skeptical.



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