UK Attempt to Curb Junk Food Ads to Kids Has Limited Effect

Rachel Pugh

May 17, 2013

LIVERPOOL, United Kingdom — Regulations introduced in the United Kingdom to protect children from junk food advertising on TV have had little effect, according to new research presented here ECO2013, the 20th European Congress on Obesity this week.

The work — by Emma Boyland, PhD, and Jason Halford, PhD, from University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and colleagues — showed that although the volume of unhealthy food advertising to children decreased slightly, this type of advertisement still dominated both general and children's viewing even after the new rules were implemented.

"The regulations are having an effect on dedicated children's programming; however, the majority of children's viewing takes place outside of this, during family viewing hours. Thus, the impact of the regulations on advertising around the programs children actually watch is very small," said Dr. Boyland.

TV food advertising has been shown to affect children's food and brand preferences, what they ask their parents to buy, and what they eat themselves, the researchers explained.

Mike Rayner, DPhil, director of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, who was not involved with this research, said, "The study does show a decline in unhealthy 'noncore' food advertising, and we cannot say whether this decrease might have been smaller or even an 'increase' without the regulations."

However, "We need stricter regulation of TV advertising for foods and drinks.  The regulations should cover all advertising children see until at least 9 pm. They should also cover nonbroadcast advertising," he told Medscape Medical News.

Rules Should Be Reexamined to Address Weaknesses

New UK rules to control TV advertising of food to children were introduced in 2007 by Ofcom (the independent regulator and competition authority for UK communications industries). The authors performed an analysis in 2008 (when some regulation was in place) and again in 2010 (when the new regulations had fully taken effect).

The research team recorded UK television between 6 am to 10 pm, during 1 weekday and 1 weekend day in every month between January and December 2008 and then again for the same periods in 2010, for 14 of the most popular commercial channels aimed at children aged 5 to 15 years and their families.

They coded food advertising according to whether it was broadcast at peak/nonpeak children's viewing time and whether the food being promoted was "core" (healthy), "noncore" (unhealthy), or ''miscellaneous."

The overall percentage of food advertisements decreased slightly, from 13% in 2008 to 11.7% in 2010, and there was less advertising of both core foods (25.5% to 19.1% of food advertising) and noncore foods (64.2% to 57.6%).

Increases took place, however, in the proportion of ads promoting confectionery (8.8% to 10.7%), full-fat dairy products (3.9% to 8.7%), and high-fiber/low-sugar breakfast cereals (7% to 8%).

Publicity for miscellaneous products, including supermarkets, tea, coffee, and vitamins, also went up.

For dedicated children's programming, food advertising fell from 11% during 2008 to 4% in 2010.

"Unhealthy food advertising still dominated in 2010," Dr. Halford said. "Regulations governing TV advertising of food in the UK principally addressed child-dedicated programming. However, they have only had a minimal impact around what children actually watch.

"This extends well beyond defined children's broadcasting times, and there is no evident shift toward an emphasis on healthier dietary options. The rules should be reexamined to address this weakness," he asserted.

However the UK government and Ofcom have stated that they are not intending to make further changes.

There was no funding for the study. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

20th European Congress on Obesity (EOC). Abstract HT:OS.001, presented May 15, 2013.

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