Self regulation isn’t protecting children from unhealthy food advertising, UOW says

by Freya Lucas

May 16

Children in countries where food and beverage sellers are able to self regulate what they advertise and when are exposed to more unhealthy food and drink advertising on television, compared with countries with no regulations or restrictions around advertising at all, a global study, led by a researcher from the University of Wollongong (UOW), has found.

 

Researchers found that, on a global average, there were four times as many advertisements for unhealthy products as there were for healthy ones, and that the frequency of those advertisements was 35 per cent higher during children’s peak viewing times.

 

The study, published in Obesity Reviews, examined television advertising data from 22 countries the Asia Pacific, African, European and North, South and Central American regions.

 

Twenty three research groups contributed to the study, which reviewed 11,191 hours of television broadcast data between 2008 and 2017. Advertisements were coded using the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations on which food and drink products should be permitted or not permitted to be advertised to children.

 

WHO recommends that children should not be exposed to marketing which aims to sell chocolate, confectionery, cakes, sweet biscuits, juices or energy drinks. The organisation also recommends that products high in total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, total sugar, added sugar, non-sugar sweeteners, salt and/or energy not be advertised to children.

 

During peak viewing times, the volume of advertisements for unhealthy products was higher in countries with industry codes of practice compared with countries where no such policies existed.

 

This, researchers suggested, pointed to the need for governments worldwide to enact regulation to protect children from television advertising of products that undermine their health.

 

Lead author, Associate Professor Bridget Kelly, from UOW, said that food industry self-regulatory codes to limit children’s exposure to harmful advertising have been “ineffective, globally”.

 

She pointed to a large body of evidence showing the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children has “a negative influence on children’s food knowledge, preferences, consumption, diet quality and health”.

 

The presence of advertising during children’s peak viewing times has been on the agenda of the WHO for some time. In 2010, WHO member states, including Australia, endorsed a resolution to restrict the marketing of food and drink products high in saturated fat, trans fat, free sugars, and/or sodium to children and adolescents. To date this has mostly been addressed by industry self-regulatory programs.

 

The measures were designed, in part, to address concerns about the growing rate of child obesity worldwide. Globally, almost one in five people aged 5 to 19 years were overweight or obese in 2016, and the prevalence of obesity in young people has increased 10‐fold in the last 40 years.

 

In the study sample, one third of all food and beverage advertisements originated from just ten companies, with a combined market value of more than $1,400 billion. The globalised nature of the processed food and vegetable industry, and the dominance of a number of transnational corporations “presents an obstacle to more effective regulation” researchers found.

 

Professor Kelly noted that the companies that contributed most to the unhealthy food marketing on TV had penetration across all markets and mediums, and are “huge, powerful multinational companies, with substantial political pull” which, she believes, impacts on the ability and willingness of governments to regulate, and protect children.

 

The study Global benchmarking of children’s exposure to television advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages across 22 countries has been published in Obesity Reviews and can be accessed here

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