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  • Writer's pictureDr Emma Derbyshire

Is it Time to Change Food and Drink Marketing in the Interests of Children’s Health?

An All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) named ‘Fit and Healthy Childhood’ has told the government to crack down on child obesity by enforcing a statutory regulation of marketing. They are calling upon the Government to ditch its time-honoured ‘voluntary approach’ to food and drink marketing in the interests of children’s health. The voluntary agreement approach, which was adopted by successive Governments, has failed to protect children from the aggressive marketing of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) that we know can have such a devastating effect on their present and future health outlook. The APPG on A Fit and Healthy Childhood has stated that it is now time for the Government to take a child-centred approach to regulation, rather than relying on ‘best intentions’ that tend to evaporate when profit is at stake.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has highlighted the adverse impact of aggressive HFSS food marketing on children’s eating and drinking habits. Public Health England’s preferred strategy is to ‘nudge’ families into taking healthier choices via initiatives such as the Sugar Smart and Be Food Smart apps, but unfortunately many corporate companies have continued to target children ruthlessly.

Children are preferentially targeted by marketers because marketing has a three-way beneficial effect on sales to children:

  1. They are independent consumers (pocket money on sweets).

  2. They can exert major influence over family purchases (pester power).

  3. They are future adult consumers whose brand loyalty, if established in youth, can be highly financially rewarding for the company over the lifespan (captive capitalisation).

Since 1975 worldwide obesity has tripled, and during the 1970s when obesity rates began to climb noticeably, there was a mirrored increase in the popularity of convenience (largely frozen) foods. Just a decade later, further food industry advances in both production and increased advertising resulted in an explosion of the availability of ultra-processed, highly refined foods which were easier to prepare (ie, microwavable meals) and as such much easier to advertise.

Indeed, the increased use of innovative strategies in product development means that within the modern-day food environment, consumers are faced with a wide and perplexing choice in terms of what and when to eat. From the manufacturer’s viewpoint, marketing is therefore more important than ever before; as is the negative role of food marketing in the escalation of child obesity.

All of us: parents, manufacturers, restaurants, cafes, takeaways, retailers, broadcasters, online media, schools and local authorities, need to take responsibility for promoting healthy choices. There is ample evidence to show that despite the existence of voluntary self-regulatory regimes, current approaches to tackling the obesogenic food environment are not only inadequate but in some instances, facilitate and promote it. Food and drink advertising still predominantly promotes the consumption of unhealthy food and drink and the ways in which it does it are extremely persuasive and engaging. It is therefore unsurprising that children respond in accordance, and as was intended by the manufacturer.

The APPG on A Fit and Healthy Childhood is trying to achieve a ‘fair food’ environment via a balanced but firm approach to help parents make healthy choices that are both sensible and convenient. The APPG on A Fit and Healthy Childhood has written a report entitled ‘The Role of Marketing in Promoting a Fit and Healthy Childhood’, which has been submitted to the Government urging them to take a proactive approach regarding the health and fitness of our children. They believe that actions must be mandatory to benefit all the UK’s children and that industry should be given no room to evade beneficial action.

Amongst other measures, the APPG on A Fit and Healthy Childhood urges the Government to:

  1. Ban the use of child-friendly characters to advertise junk food.

  2. Extend existing regulation to restrict HFSS TV advertising until after the 9pm watershed.

  3. Review and amend regulatory systems currently in place for online content, starting by extending existing policies regulating food marketing to children to online material.

  4. Require that rogue adverts be reported to the ASA and sponsorships fully declared.

  5. Introduce tougher restriction on the marketing and advertising of unhealthy food and commit extra resources to ways in which to target ‘hard to reach’ groups with healthy lifestyle initiatives.

  6. Restore the £600 million cuts to councils’ public health funding and provide additional resources to support children and young people who are most seriously obese.

  7. Fully adopt the UNICEF-advocated ‘child rights’ approach to marketing and this to underpin relevant legislative strategy.

The challenge now facing the Government is to take radical action to protect children and young people, using statutory means in those areas where a predominantly voluntary approach has failed and continues to fail. In this way, individuals can be supported through coherent and sustained implementation of policies that are both evidence-based and population-based and regulation can be devised that at the very least, facilitates the availability of healthier lifestyle choices that are affordable and easily accessible to everyone from all sectors of society. So, will the Government stand up and be counted in the children’s corner?




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