EU ‘must legislate’ on unhealthy marketing for kids: 'Industry self-regulation is not working'

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

EU should introduce cross boarder ban on junk food marketing, civil society says / Pic: GettyImages-Lisa5201
EU should introduce cross boarder ban on junk food marketing, civil society says / Pic: GettyImages-Lisa5201

Related tags: HFSS, Junk food marketing, Marketing, Childhood obesity

A coalition of European health, medical, consumer and family organisations has called on the European Union to adopt legislation to protect children from the ‘harmful impacts’ of the ‘widespread, ubiquitous and insidious’ marketing of nutritionally poor food.

Organisations as diverse as Foodwatch, Eurochild and the European Public Health Alliance have released a blueprint Food Marketing Directive​ as an example of how the EU can use its powers to effectively regulate cross-border marketing.

“We are deeply concerned by the heavy marketing of unhealthy food at the root of unhealthy eating habits and lifestyles. This goes against the interests of children. We are committed to join efforts to protect children from aggressive marketing and advertising, along with promoting a healthy lifestyle,”​ commented Annemie Drieskens, Confederation of Family Organisations in the European Union (COFACE).

Core provisions in the Directive include banning advertising of ‘nutritionally poor’ food between 6am and 11pm on broadcast media, ending the marketing of nutritionally poor food on digital media – including social and video sharing platforms, prohibiting sponsorship of events such as sporting events or festivals with cross boarder events, ending the use of other marketing techniques such as food packaging that appeals to children, and  defining a ‘child’ as anyone under 18. The coalition wants regulators to use the World Health Organization Europe’s nutrient profile model​ to define what is ‘nutritionally poor food’.

Describing childhood overweight and obesity rates in Europe as running ‘rampant​’, the coalition pointed to research suggesting young people across the region see more than four ads​ for sugary, fatty and salty food on television each day. “Digital marketing is enabling​ ever more tailored and persuasive approaches, but remains largely unchallenged,”​ they noted.

Professor Em. Raymond Vanholder, representing the European Chronic Disease Alliance (ECDA), stressed that there is a strong correlation between childhood incidence of overweight or obesity and poor health outcomes in later life. “Children have the right to grow-up in environments that are conducive to good health. They are at a crucial age of development where quality nutrition plays a great role in health and many risks associated with unhealthy diets begin in childhood. A significant share of the mortality and disease burden attributable to chronic diseases is caused by dietary risk factors, we need to protect our younger generations from exposure to the marketing of food and beverage high in fat, salt, or sugar specifically targeting children and adolescents, notably online and on social media,”​ the health expert insisted.

A need for ‘binding’ cross boarder regulation 

The civil society organisations said that ‘several’ national initiatives, such as the introduction of HFSS regulation in the UK and new marketing restrictions in Spain, are leading the way. However, the coalition argued, the EU has to date failed to regulate cross-boarder marketing.

The blueprint is being presented as a call to action for EU policy makers to take decisive action. “We have fiddled around the edges for too long. Europe’s youth is still massively exposed to health-harmful food marketing. This initiative is a call for action and a show of what the EU can actually do to support a healthy generation,”​ Nikolai Pushkarev, from blueprint signatory the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), said.

This initiative comes right in time to respond to the recently adopted European Parliament Own Initiative Report​ on the EU Farm to Fork Strategy which call for an “an effective and EU-wide regulatory approach to tackle the exposure of children and adolescents to advertising and marketing of processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt on broadcast and digital media​”, they said.

Professor Amandine Garde, of University of Liverpool and lead drafter of the blueprint, rejected the idea that self-regulation and voluntary commitments are an appropriate means of tackling HFSS marketing to children. “Legislative reforms must be driven by evidence, not by a dogmatic, misplaced belief in the virtues of self-regulation. It is high time the EU adopted legally binding rules protecting children from exposure to all forms of cross-border unhealthy food marketing,”​ Professor Garde argued.

“The health of children is more important than profits of the junk food industry. We need regulation to protect our kids from aggressive marketing. Voluntary measures are just not enough,”​ echoed Foodwatch’s Suzy Summer.

Likewise, Nelleke Polderman, The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), stressed that industry self-regulation – the doctrine that has shaped EU approaches to restricting HFSS marketing – has failed to protect children from exposure. “Food companies’ commitment to market their products responsibly fails to protect European children from ads praising unhealthy foods. Since industry self-regulation is not working, binding EU rules are necessary,”​ the consumer advocate suggested.

Organisations supporting the call to action:

  • Association of European Cancer Leagues (ECL)
  • Confederation of Family Organisations in the European Union (COFACE)
  • Eurochild
  • EuroHealthNet
  • European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL)
  • European Chronic Disease Alliance (ECDA)
  • European Childhood Obesity Group (ECOG)
  • European Heart Network (EHN)
  • European Oncology Nursing Society (EONS)
  • European Public Health Alliance (EPHA)
  • European Public Health Association (EUPHA)
  • foodwatch
  • International Association of Mutual Benefit Societies (AIM)
  • International Diabetes Federation Europe (IDF Europe)
  • Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE)
  • Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME)
  • The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC)
  • The Good Lobby
  • United European Gastroenterology (UEG)
  • World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRFI)

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