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Self-regulation of food advertising to children is failing across Europe, says IASO

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 27-Sep-2012
Last updated on 27-Sep-2012 at 13:55 GMT

Self-regulation of food advertising to children has been labelled a failure by the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO), which has said in a new report that advertising to children has fallen by a “disappointing” 29% across Europe since 2004 – and has actually increased in some countries.

The report , A Junk‐Free Childhood 2012: Marketing foods and beverages to children in Europe”, is part of the StanMark Project, which is partly funded by the EU and aims to bring together international researchers and policy-makers to establish a set of standards for marketing foods and beverages which would be acceptable to the main stakeholders, including industry.

Meanwhile, industry has its own voluntary programme – the EU Pledge – set up with 11 high-profile food companies in 2007, which promised to stop advertising junk food to under-12s by the end of 2008, and the pledge includes an agreement for independent monitoring. Twenty companies have now signed up to the initiative, representing about 80% of EU food and beverage advertising spending.

But the IASO report says that this programme is not working.

The report’s author, Dr Tim Lobstein, said: “The food and beverage companies were told in 2004 by the then European Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou that they must cut their advertising to children or face regulation. The figures show that self‐regulation achieved only a 29% fall in children’s exposure, which is deeply disappointing. Exposure is now creeping up again in some countries.”

Children’s exposure varies across Europe

Citing figures from the EU Pledge 2011 Monitoring Report, the IASO said that children’s exposure to non-compliant foods and beverages has fallen 45% in Ireland and 35% in France since the beginning of 2005, but has increased in some countries – by as much as 38% in the Netherlands and 26% in Slovenia.

However, Stephan Loerke, managing director of the World Advertising Federation, which represents the EU Pledge participants, told FoodNavigator that the figures have been taken out of context.

"It picks one figure out of a set of figures," he said. "On the core commitment, [when a viewing audience consisted of more than 50% children] the difference is minus 79%."

The minus 29% figure refers to children's exposure to advertising across all programmes in the day in 2011, he said.

Lobstein also claims that the EU Pledge sets the bar lower than many governments for what is considered ‘junk food’.

“Our report found over 30 fatty and sugary foods which are classified as unhealthy in government‐approved schemes across Europe and the USA but which are considered healthy by the manufacturers and which they allow themselves to advertise,” he said. “Each company came up with its own definitions of what and how it will advertise, which it uses to its own advantage.

“…Self‐regulation simply does not work in a highly competitive marketplace.”

Loerke countered: "The Commission has actually refused to use the nutrition system that Ofcom is applying...If [developing a universal set of nutrition criteria] was easy, it would already exist."

‘Stop passing the blame’

Coca-Cola Europe’s corporate social responsibility director for health and wellness, Wouter Vermeulen, also defended the EU Pledge at a conference on regulating lifestyle risks at the HEC Paris last week.

He told delegates: “From our perspective there is a lot of value in the platform…You only get a ticket to the club if you commit to do something. You also commit to third party monitoring of your commitments…The simple solutions are not always right, and the right solutions are not always simple. If I could suggest one area for improvement, it is to stop passing the blame from one person to another.”

Lobstein also welcomed the current debate in Norway over proposals  for advertising restrictions on junk food to all under-18s.

“We want this high level of protection applied across Europe," he said.

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