MEPs water down rules on junk food advertising to kids

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/alexsokolov
© iStock/alexsokolov

Related tags European union Nutrition

The latest draft of the audiovisual media services directive (AVMSD), proposed by the European Parliament’s culture and education committee (CULT), is “full of loopholes”, according to campaigners.

Campaigners called it a “once in a decade opportunity”​ to protect children from ubiquitous marketing of junk food and fizzy drinks.

Twelve months ago the European Commission launched a review of the AVMSD​, which covers audiovisual media including television advertising and shopping, sponsorship and product placement. The plan is to ensure the rules reflect the digital age and shifts viewing patterns.

Included in the redraft were measures designed to reduce the exposure of minors to audiovisual commercial communications of foods and beverages that are high in salt, sugars”​, including on video sharing platforms such as YouTube.

But the CULT committee, which is leading scrutiny of the proposals, this month agreed on a “watered down”​ version, according to health groups.

Rules on product placement have been “relaxed”,​ said Nikolai Pushkarev, policy coordinator at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

The committee has also referred to “children’s programmes”​ rather than the Commission’s wording of “programmes with a significant children’s audience”. ​The amendment is significant given how popular many prime-time TV shows are with children.

Radical suggestion

The EPHA and others had called for a ban on TV adverts​ for sugar sweetened beverages and sodas, alcohol and foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) between 6am and 11pm. Pushkarev admitted this was radical but is disappointed with how far the committee has backtracked.

Even the advice of members of Europe’s food safety and health committee (ENVI) had seemingly been ignored by their counterparts at CULT – in February, the former voted in favour of restricting unhealthy food marketing during children’s peak viewing times​.

However, the members of the two committees did agree that there was no need to include stricter nutrient profiles to define what products are considered unhealthy. Campaigners had called for those established by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to be followed.

The recent amendments “weaken the text of the revised Directive significantly”,​ said Leen Meulenbergs, WHO representative to the EU.

Attention needs to be paid to digital marketing, which is being used wildly and almost without control,” ​she explained. “Policy-makers should consider adopting measures that cover all media with a significant child audience and children’s peak viewing times​.”

Sticking with self-regulation

According to previous research by WHO, there is “strong scientific evidence”​ that childhood obesity is influenced by marketing of HFSS food and soft drinks. There is also mounting evidence that too much of the marketing is filtering through to children, both on television and online, Meulenbergs said.As such, existing regulations are “markedly insufficient to address the challenges in this field”, ​she added.

CULT’s proposals continue to rely heavily on industry to regulate itself. There is plenty of evidence to show that this approach isn’t working, said EPHA’s Pushkarev. Academics are increasingly “sceptical”​ of self-regulation​, he claimed, adding: “It’s very difficult to evaluate.”

The food industry often points to the EU Pledge – an agreement signed by many of the major food and beverage companies to “change the way they advertise to children”. ​The latest report showed that the average child under 12 sees 88% fewer ads for products that don’t meet the Pledge’s nutrition criteria than in 2005.

But critics argue that the criteria are too weak.​The World Federation of Advertisers, which has taken the lead for the industry during the AVMSD review, declined to comment. “It’s our organisation's policy not to comment publicly on ongoing policy discussions,”​ a spokesman explained in an email.

In CULT’s agreed text, member states are “encouraged to ensure that self-regulation and co-regulation, including codes of conduct, effectively contribute to the objective of the reduction of the exposure of children to audiovisual commercial communications regarding foods and beverages that are high in salt, sugars or fat, or that otherwise do not fit national or international nutritional guidelines”.

There is a threat that regulation will be considered should the directive not deliver the “expected results in minimising the exposure of children and minors to such audiovisual communications”.​ An analysis should take place within four years of the rules coming into force, the committee said.

The European Parliament and EU council of ministers are in the process of drafting their positions on the Commission’s proposal. A series of trilogue meetings is then due to take place sometime in the next few weeks.

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