UK government childhood obesity plan falls short of expectations

The UK government has today unveiled its childhood obesity strategy which has been accused of putting the interests of the advertising industry ahead of the interests of children. Here BMC Public Health looks at some of its research published on television food advertising, a measure which has not been included in the government's plan.

The UK government has today published its strategy to tackle childhood obesity in the country but this has already been met with criticism as it does not include marketing restrictions.

The new plan includes a drive for primary school children (ages 5 to 11) to exercise for at least an hour a day and voluntary schemes to encourage manufacturers to cut sugar in children’s food and drink by 20%. However, despite the fact that the strategy is a year delayed and expectations have been high, the plan has omitted many measures supported by health experts, including restrictions on food adverts and cheap deals on junk foods. Furthermore, although the government proposes targets for food companies to reduce the level of sugar in their products, the fact that these are voluntary and not backed up by regulation are, as the British Medical Association states, “pointless.”

A global health challenge

The World Health Organization views childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century. Obese children are more likely to be ill, be absent from school due to illness, experience health-related limitations and require more medical care than normal weight children. They are also more likely to become obese adults, and have a higher risk of morbidity, disability and premature mortality in adulthood. In England in 2014/15, a third of 10-11 year olds and over a fifth of 4-5 year olds were overweight or obese as presented by The National Child Measurement Programme which measures the height and weight of around one million school children in the country ever year.

So why has banning price-cutting promotions of junk food in supermarkets and restricting advertising of unhealthy food not appeared in the government’s strategy? BMC Public Health takes a look at some of its publications which highlight the importance of the latter measure in curbing the obesity problem in children.

Unhealthy ads

Television food advertising has become an influence on dietary patterns, promoting unhealthy food choices in children as portrayed in this article investigating children’s attitudes towards TV food advertising by examining four well-cited induction factors namely advertisement recognition, favorite advertisement, purchase request, and product preference. The study finds that school children are more attracted to unhealthy TV advertisements than healthier core food advertisements and that, for every additional hour of TV viewing, the probability for children to like non-core food advertisements as their favorite TV advertisements increases by 5-6%, irrespective of their ethnic groups.

A study exploring the extent and nature of television food advertising to primary school children in China reveals that there are high levels of food ads on TV, particularly for unhealthy foods compared to core foods and miscellaneous foods. Based on the authors’ survey and a previous study of theirs, they presume that if children watch TV an average of two hours per day, they will be exposed to 102 food ads containing 46 unhealthy food ads per week. Furthermore, the authors find that more children-oriented persuasive marketing tactics are used in unhealthy food adverts. As a result, children often ask their parents to purchase these foods.

Few studies have examined the extent and nature of food marketing to children in low and middle income countries. The authors of this article assess the nutritional quality of foods and beverages advertised on Mexican TV, applying the Mexican, World Health Organization (WHO) European and United Kingdom (UKNPM) nutrient profile models. They find that the majority of foods and beverages advertised do not comply with any nutritional quality standards, and so should not be marketed to children. The majority of advertisements are for beverages followed by chocolate and confectionery whereas the food categories with the lowest percentage of advertisements are fruit, vegetables and legumes, and meat, poultry and fish. In conclusion, the authors suggest a need for constructive engagement with the government to improve and strengthen the regulation of food and beverages aimed at children.

Sponsored sport

Marketers are also increasingly using non-traditional forms of advertising to appeal to children. An example of this is the promotion of unhealthy commodities in sport. A study carried out in Australia finds that the most liked sport teams by children are associated with an unhealthy product such as junk food. This provides evidence that sport sponsorships may be contributing to a consumer socialization process whereby children, through repeated and sustained exposure to unhealthy commodity brands during professional sporting matches, begin to see them more favorably.

With overwhelming evidence supporting television food advertising as a dominant medium in the obesogenic environment, criticisms of the UK government’s strategy seem justified. Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and healthy eating campaigner, has also spoken out, saying that the long-awaited strategy is “far from robust”.

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