Governments must control food marketing to kids, finds EU study

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags European union Marketing Nutrition

Measures to restrict the advertising of unhealthy foods to children should be set by governments and not by industry, says the author of a review funded by the European Union.

According to Tim Lobstein, director of policy at the International Association for the Study of Obesity (ISAO), there has been significant progress in the last six years in curbing the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids, but “there’s chaos within the details”.

The conclusion was drawn from an analysis of the European policy landscape, undertaken as part of the European Commission’s effort to gather evidence to support policy making on the marketing of foods to children. Lobstein presented the findings of the EU PolMark study – which was coordinated by ISAO – at the International Congress on Obesity, held in Stockholm, Sweden, earlier this week.

Anarchy and chaos

"An increasing number of countries are trying to address this issue, with some introducing regulations addressing television advertising during children's programming or the use of familiar personalities or fictional characters to promote products during that television time slot. There is real progress, but the challenges are numerous,” ​said Lobstein.

"Firstly, most countries do not address advertising to children by the calorie content or other nutrient quality of the food product and marketing channels beyond broadcast advertising have been largely ignored. Secondly, our research has shown that there's a certain amount of anarchy at the moment and concluded that the terms need to be set by government, not the industry itself, because although they appear to be willing, there's chaos within the details, with a lot of contradiction in what industry is offering.”

Positive efforts… but ‘not enough’

The issue of food marketing to children has been in the spotlight for some years now, in light of the rising incidence of childhood obesity. In 2005 EU health and consumer affairs commissioner Markos Kyprianou gave stark warning to the food industry that it must restrict advertising of products that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) to children, or face legislation.

The EU Pledge followed in December 2007 with 11 leading food and beverage companies all agreed to stop running junk food ads on TV, in print and on the internet to under-12s by the end of 2008.

The original signatories, which represent more than 50 per cent of the food and beverage advertising spend in the EU, included Burger King; Coca-Cola; Danone; Ferrero; General Mills; Kellogg; Mars, Nestlé, Unilever, LU Snack Foods (Kraft Food) and PepsiCo.

However, Lobstein said that the impact of voluntary measures is “not enough”.

"Food companies are making pledges and showing that they are sticking to those, but the pledges have loopholes. They don't all stick to the same criteria around the definition of marketing, what age group of children and what foods are covered,”​ he said.

“Companies have been pushing the boundaries into children's social marketing networks, school playgrounds, text messaging to mobile phones and so on, undermining any likely parental controls. We need a system that supports, rather than hinders, the efforts of parents to prevent obesity in their children. You cannot expect the industry to reform itself when so much money would be lost."

The EU PolMark study was funded by the European Union, the Norwegian Health Directorate and the UK National Heart Forum, and involved a collaboration of research groups in 11 European countries.

For more information on the study, click here​.

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