Dr Lauren Elsie White, SPECTRUM Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

In response to emerging evidence of a link between experiencing serious health consequences of contracting Covid-19 and obesity (Sattar et al., 2020) and the Prime Minister’s own experience of recovering from Covid-19, the UK Government are now planning to release a new programme to address obesity.  However, early indications suggest that the programme maintains an individualised approach to addressing obesity without confronting the structural conditions that prevent both adults and children from eating healthy food.  One key area that appears to be absent from the Government’s programme is that of addressing the advertising of unhealthy food and drinks.

This blog post reports on my PhD, where I examined parents’ (children aged between five and 15 years) and children’s (aged 12-15) views on the regulation of online advertising of unhealthy food and drink to children (White, 2020).  The findings presented here speak directly to the need to include advertising restrictions as part of the wider UK Government strategy to help people attain a nutritious diet and maintain a healthy weight.

How do parents and children view the online advertising of unhealthy food and drinks?

Parents and children considered the online advertising of unhealthy food and drink as pervasive and inescapable.  Parents described having little control over the unhealthy food advertising their children viewed online, and could not prevent their children from viewing it.  Parents and children reported that the online advertising of unhealthy food and drinks to children encouraged children to pester their parents for the products they had seen advertised, and encouraged children to consume those unhealthy advertised products more frequently.    The majority of children and parents considered the unhealthy food and drink industry as having too much power over children’s food and drink preferences, and that the high amount of advertising children were exposed to contributed to an environment that facilitated unhealthy eating.

How do parents and children view the regulation of online advertising of unhealthy food and drinks?

The majority of children and parents desired more control over what food and drink children preferred and selected.  However, they argued this was not possible in the current food environment due to the pervasive advertising of unhealthy products.  Some parents and children were especially sceptical of the effectiveness of the UK’s current advertising self-regulatory system, arguing that this allowed industry too much power over the regulatory process and children’s dietary preferences.  As such, parents and children called for improving the regulation of online advertising of unhealthy food and drink and for Government to be responsible for this regulation.  They felt that, in contrast to many arguments surrounding the nanny-state and liberalism, that this increased Government regulation would give parents and children more power and autonomy over their food and drink choices.

What does this mean for policy?

The findings in this study suggest that there is support for government action on advertising of unhealthy food and drink to children to improve the food environment children grow up in.  This is particularly true when considering the participants’ views on the power they described industry as possessing over children’s dietary preferences and wider food environment.  If the government is serious about addressing obesity and helping the population to achieve a healthy weight, there needs to be strong action on areas where the public feel they have little control over, implementing policies that seek to empower the public to attain a healthy lifestyle.  Online advertising, and advertising more generally, of unhealthy food and drink needs to be reduced if we are to ensure the food environment that children and adults live in is most conducive to achieving a healthy lifestyle.


SATTAR, N., MCINNES, I. B. & MCMURRAY, J. J. V. 2020. Obesity a Risk Factor for Severe COVID-19 Infection: Multiple Potential Mechanisms. American Heart Association.

WHITE, L. E. 2020. Understanding the Policy and Public Debate Surrounding the Regulation of Online Advertising of High in Fat, Sugar and Salt Food and Beverages to Children. Doctor of Philosophy, University of Glasgow.