Barrage of junk food ads fuelling teenage obesity

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Food manufacturers are being given “free rein to target young people” with junk food ads, according to campaigners.

Research published by Cancer Research UK showed that teenagers are more than twice as likely to be obese if they can remember seeing a junk food advert every day compared to those who couldn’t recall any over a month.

The charity quizzed 3,348 young people in the UK between 11-19 about their TV viewing habits, diet and body mass index (BMI).

When teens watched shows on TV and streaming websites without adverts, the researchers found no link between screen time and likelihood of being obese. This suggests the adverts “may be prompting young people to eat more junk food”.

Obese teenagers were more likely to recall social media adverts than the other mediums, so this platform had the greatest association with obesity, the charity said.

Laws 'markedly insufficient' 

The World Health Organisation has stressed – repeatedly – that exposure to junk food adverting needs to be reduced. In 2016, research published by the organisation’s European office​ suggested the laws were “markedly insufficient”​ with the current restrictions “narrowly defined”​ and “patchy”.

New restrictions on junk food ads on social media aimed at children have been introduced in the UK. In fact, they came in to force before Cancer Research conducted its poll.

In July 2017, the Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) published rules banning ads for food and drink that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). However, the restrictions only apply to all media where children make up over 25% of the audience.

The UK’s Obesity Health Alliance has said the CAP regulations are “full of loopholes”.​ WHO has made similar observations at a European level, and even said that a failure to tighten the laws regarding digital marketing could be undermining other efforts to tackle childhood obesity​.

Speaking at an event in Edinburgh in February, Shahriar Coupal, director of advertising policy and practice at the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, defended the CAP rules. He also said that the evidence of advertising’s impact on children’s diets “falls considerably short of justifying restrictions”.

He told the Scotland Policy Conference on Obesity: “The evidence tells us there is an impact [from food and drink advertising] on children's food preferences. But not so great we believe as to warrant the kinds of restriction that we're hearing about in [Scotland’s proposed] obesity strategy.”

ASA action 

This autumn, the ASA will be publishing trend data on the effectiveness of the non-broadcast advertising restrictions.

Dr Jyotsna Vohra, a lead author on the study from Cancer Research UK, said: “We can’t allow the industry free rein to target young people. Since this data was collected new restrictions on junk food adverts on social media aimed at children have come into force but it’s been 10 years since we’ve seen any update to the rules on TV adverts.”

A 9pm watershed for advertising of junk food is supported by health campaigners in the UK as well as Europe (where there was hope that a review of the audio visual media services directive would help to tighten junk food marketing rules).

At the moment there appears to be little political support for the idea, apart from in Scotland. Proposals published by the Scottish government in October 2017 included a desire to extend restrictions on advertising of HFSS foods to all programmes before the 9pm watershed.

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