Originally posted on Huffpost Politics on 4 April 2016 by Professor John Wass. Image: World Obesity
We are facing a childhood obesity crisis. Currently more than one in five children in England are overweight or obese before starting primary school; by the time they leave primary school this increases to a third.
It may be tempting to dismiss excess weight in childhood as a bit of puppy fat, but we know that obese children are more likely to grow into obese adults, and obese adults are more likely to develop serious health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. There is also a complex relationship, in both directions, between obesity and mental health.
The ‘Obesogenic Environment’
It’s easy to point the finger at parents and blame them for their children’s weight. However the causes of obesity are complex. Experts increasingly agree that we live in what they call an ‘obesogenic environment’ – this means the world we live in is set up to encourage people to eat unhealthily and not do enough physical activity.
We’re raising our children in a world where the majority of everyday food is packed full of sugar and fat, and junk food is relentlessly advertised and easily available.
The Role of Marketing
Research shows that marketing greatly influences the food children choose to eat – making it hard for parents to do what’s best for their children, and indeed, hard to make the right food choices for themselves.
Our children watch an average of 14.6 hours of television every week. That gives them ample opportunity to be persuaded of the delights of everything from the latest personalised spoon that comes with their favourite cereal to the tastiness of a particular junk food.
And as every parent knows, once a child decides they have to have something, it can be hard to persuade them otherwise.
We need a 9pm junk food watershed
That’s why the Obesity Health Alliance is calling for the Government to restrict junk food marketing to children by introducing a 9pm ban on junk food advertising on TV. This would protect children from being bombarded by adverts for unhealthy food and drinks during peak viewing times for families – such as prime time Saturday night TV.
This measure has strong support from the public. In a recent poll, released by the Obesity Health Alliance, 78 per cent of people agreed that advertising unhealthy foods during family TV shows should be reduced.
The Online Problem
And it’s not just TV where children are exposed to relentless marketing of unhealthy foods, the internet has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for advertisers to persuade children to eat their products. Companies are exploiting gaps in the regulations to target children online with promotions for products that cannot be advertised on children’s television.
One example of this is advergames. These are online games that promote a particular brand, product or message by integrating it into digital play.
Research shows that advergames, which are currently unregulated, are even more powerful than traditional advertising. This is because children are subconsciously targeted for longer periods of time, to engage with the brand or product through play rather than passive viewing.
Plans are underway to review the rules that govern how food manufacturers can advertise to children online, but many campaigners are concerned that these don’t go far enough.
The Obesity Health Alliance wants to see stricter regulation to protect children from marketing techniques used to encourage them to eat junk food – both on TV and online. For the public this is a no brainer – 71 per cent of the public agree junk food marketing makes it harder for children to eat healthily.
There’s no magic bullet that is going to be the answer to our nation’s expanding waistlines. But lots of small measures have the potential to make a big difference. Tackling marketing will provide crucial support for parents to make healthy choices for their families.
All eyes are now on the Government, as we urgently await its delayed childhood obesity strategy. If they are serious about tackling the obesity crisis, it’s time they step up, and make the difficult but necessary decisions to protect our next generation.