“Dispelling myths”: Sedentary lifestyles more impactful on childhood obesity than junk food advertising, claims new UK report

“Dispelling myths”: Sedentary lifestyles more impactful on childhood obesity than junk food advertising, claims new UK report

11 Mar 2019 --- The UK Advertising Association has published a new report setting out the advertising industry’s viewpoint on the challenge of childhood obesity – and it claims to “dispel some the myths that exist around advertising and its role.” The report includes new data showing children’s exposure to products that are high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) and says that HFSS advertising has dramatically reduced in recent years while pointing to an increase in sedentary behavior.

Further restrictions on advertising are not the silver bullet for rising childhood obesity, the report argues, as the UK already has among the strictest and most effective restrictions on the exposure of children to junk food advertising anywhere in the world. The report stresses that the average child sees around 11.5 seconds of HFSS advertising on TV and online a day which amounts to around one-hundredth of one percent of a child’s day. 

It also claims that effective solutions for tackling childhood obesity need to focus foremost on countering the “dramatic declines in physical activity among children and therefore the calories expended.” 

An Advertising Association spokesperson explains to NutritionInsight how fighting childhood obesity is a multi-faceted and complex issue that needs evidence-based solutions that target the roots of the problem. Moreover, the advertising industry is well-placed to promote healthy lifestyle messages to people who are at-risk from obesity.

“Discussion about further advertising restrictions is often founded on the misplaced belief that ‘children are bombarded by junk food advertising.’ On the contrary, further advertising restrictions on HFSS food and drink will include common everyday items that the general public would not consider ‘junk food,’” the spokesperson says. 

“Our aim has been to produce a helpful tool and resource on the subjects of advertising and childhood obesity and to add to debate and discussion in these areas. As such, we have shared this with UK Government and the general public so that they have swift access to a bank of facts, figures and case studies as the government’s consultation on further restrictions looks set to be published.”

“The reality is that childhood obesity is a serious problem, but one that is a complex social issue, with child obesity levels strongly affected by lifestyle and geography. To be effective, solutions need to be evidence-based and focus first and foremost on countering the dramatic declines in physical activity we have witnessed among children, and so calories expended.”

The new report – The challenge of childhood obesity – recognizes how childhood obesity poses a significant challenge to future public health around the world. Britain is not unique in attempting to turn back the clock on this public health matter. Many countries have put in place some form of government-backed program aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles. And yet such programs have had mixed success, with some proving ineffective and potentially even counter-productive, argues the Advertising Association. Other initiatives, it says, show signs of success in a relatively short space of time.

Last April, the UK’s sugar tax on soft drinks came into force as part of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy. The Public Health England (PHE) program also challenges industry to reduce sugar by 20 percent in everyday foods like breakfast cereals, yogurts, pizzas and ready meals, by 2020. 

This latest Advertising Association report comes at a time of continued sugar reformulation across the food and beverage industry that spans almost all categories and segments. Innovating less or no-sugar products remains one of the key concepts as consumers continue to push for healthy products and manufacturers adapt to the shifting preferences dynamic. 

Last year, Innova Market Insights also carried out a survey examining what factors influence consumers by when making soft drink purchasing decisions. “Low/no/reduced sugar” came out on top with 32.6 percent of participants saying this is what influences them the most, followed by 17.4 percent of people who said that “No artificial flavors or colors” was their key driver, closely followed by 17 percent who claimed “naturalness” is most important. 

Advertising: Part of the solution?
The Advertising Association says that rather than being seen as part of the problem, effective advertising can be part of the solution. 

“Advertising and the creative minds working in our industry have a unique ability to be part of the solution in finding ways to engage those sections of the population at-risk from obesity to become more active and adapt their lifestyles through public health campaigns, such as the new ‘eat them to defeat them’ veg campaign from UK television network, ITV,” the spokesperson continues. 

“Rather than being wrongly perceived as part of the problem causing rising obesity, advertising can be part of the solution to encourage a healthier, more active country.”

“Family, friends, schools, business and all other parts of society have a role in changing behaviors. But it is the many hours that children spend on sedentary behaviors daily – not the seconds during which children are exposed to food advertising – that deserve our primary focus.”

The report highlights:

- UK advertising rules are among the strictest in the world and already restrict the advertising of HFSS food or drink products in and around TV programs commissioned for, or likely to appeal to, children. The rules for all other media, including online, restrict HFSS adverts where under 16s make up more than 25 percent of the audience;

- If exposure to food adverts is a credible factor in obesity prevalence, it would be expected that the dramatic reduction in exposure to HFSS advertising over the past 10 years would have had a more significant impact on child obesity levels; 

- The Office of Communications’ (Offcom) analysis in 2010 was that HFSS exposure by children on TV had fallen by 37 percent since the introduction of the rules in 2008; 

- Since then, Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) data shows there has been a 41 percent fall in all food advertising exposure by children. 

- Brands advertising online can use tools accurately to direct HFSS advertisements away from children and young people so that online exposure to such adverts by under 16's is minimal at 0.5 seconds a day. 

There continues to be a wealth of reports into childhood obesity and the factors behind the escalating crisis in various countries. This also includes a number of initiatives and reports examining how to tackle the problem. 

Last December, a study by the Yale School of Public Health and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, found that school-based nutrition programs and recommendations promote healthier eating habits and result in a lower body mass index (BMI) among middle schoolers.

In June 2018, the UK government announced new measures aimed at halving childhood obesity rates by 2030, including efforts to prevent stores from displaying unhealthy food at checkouts and to ban the sale of caffeine-laden energy drinks to children. 

Meanwhile in Chile, high body mass index (BMI) and diet-related risk factors are the country's leading causes of death, and one-quarter of schoolchildren and one-third of the adult population are obese. In 2016, the Chilean government adopted comprehensive food regulation policies through front-of-package labeling, marketing restrictions and school regulations, to achieve better health outcomes. Last month, a  study conducted investigated how Chilean mothers understood and perceived the benefits of the country’s new policies aimed at combating childhood obesity. 

Evidence in the Advertising Association report suggests that a lack of exercise is what is driving the continued prevalence of obesity among certain groups in the UK, rather than food itself. It also cites A 2015 UK NHS study demonstrating the limited number of children meeting daily physical activity guidelines. Only 28 percent of 5-7-year-olds met the recommended daily amount of physical activity, and as children get older, their already low activity levels decline further. By the time children reach the ages of 13-15, only 12 percent meet the recommended amount of daily activity. 

By Gaynor Selby 

To contact our editorial team please email us at editorial@cnsmedia.com

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