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Banning Junk Food Ads - UK's Bold Step

Posted May 14 2009 4:33pm

Photo courtesyBBC.co.uk

It was exactly one year ago this conversation took place. I was with a group of friends having tea when I happened to mention that that my son Devashish had put on quite a bit of weight in a very short span of time. At least I thought he had, though I was not sure. When I said this, a friend asked me if he was eating too much junk food. My answer to that was a definite NO. I mean Dev was 3 years old and had not even been introduced to junk food as such. So how could he have too much of it? I thought that was a very strange question.

Fast forward to this year and I cannot say the same. Dev now notices and recognises the Golden Arches of McDonalds immediately when he sees them. A fast food joint is one of his favourite places to visit. He rarely eats the entire meal but loves the toys that come along with the meal but I know it won’t be long before he will be gobbling down burgers and chips and washing it down with some fizzy drink and I have to admit that this increasing attraction of fast food joints does leave me a bit uneasy.

How many of you see the similarities to this?

Child Obesity is a rising problem causing great concern and a cause of many debates, issues and controversies around the World. Health Experts in the USA have equated it to National Epidemic and are calling it an Urban Illness. Statistics show that 15% of the children aged between 6 to 11 years in the USA are overweight and the percentage is rising with every passing year. Europe too has seen a steady increase in the percentage of Child Obesity with highest prevalence in Southern Europe. According to the Health Survey for England, 16% of boys and 10% of girls aged between 2 and 10 are obese.

Parents all over the world have the same worries: Is my child eating healthy? Is he/she getting his daily rations of vitamins, minerals? How can I help make the correct food choices with so many external influences on a child’s diet? It seems to be a never-ending story. So, the latest from the UK about junk food ad bans on television in an attempt to beat child obesity, comes as a welcome piece of news.

About 40% of ads during children's programmes are for food. Most of these are for confectionary, fast food, pre-sugared breakfast cereals, savoury snacks or soft drinks. Ofcom (An independent regulator and authority for the UK communication industries) has hence put forth the proposal that ads for food and drinks high in salt, sugar or fat will be banned from British television programmes aimed at children in the government fight against increasing childhood obesity.
Media regulator Ofcom put forward rules that will apply to programming that appeals to children under the age of 16 at any time of day or night on any channel.

This decision has left both advertising and health groups angry.
Ofcom said it had a responsibility to reduce the exposure of children to the advertising of such foods, balanced against the need to secure television programmes of high quality. Consumer and health groups have been lobbying for a full ban on junk food TV ads before 9pm. However, Ofcom thought this to be disproportionate.

Ofcom’s initial aim was to target the under 9-year-old group with this ban, however on November 17 the announcement to extend the ban for the under 16-year-olds came as a big surprise. Due to this new plan, to cover an older group, the regulations will be required to go through new consultation. The final decision will be announced in January 2007. Whatever the outcome one thing is for certain - Marketing companies have till March 2007 to comply with the new regulations and the kids-only networks till end of 2008. The restrictions will apply to all broadcasters licensed by Ofcom and based in the UK, including international broadcasters transmitting from the UK to audiences overseas.

Obviously with a proposal for a controversial ban on the horizon there has to be a strong debate raging over it.
The points that are being debated over are:
1. Whether it is enough to ban the ads only on the children’s channels and during those adult programmes watched by children or should there be a complete ban on these ads before the 9 pm watershed. Health campaigners support a complete ban before 9 pm watershed, but of course the food industry feels that these restrictions will be over the top.
2. Another school of thought is that advertising is a free speech issue and can any independent body bring about a ban on it?
3. Will only banning such ads really reduce the percentage of child obesity? Should it not be accompanied by emphasis on a combination of regular exercise and healthy eating patterns encouraged by parents and schools?
4. The most negatively affected by such a ban will be the food chains, manufacturers and broadcasters as this ban is set to cost them an estimated loss of 39 million Pounds of revenue. The food companies will simply turn to other channels for advertising.

The debate goes on.

This is a positive step towards helping us as parents to get our kids to not only eat healthier but also THINK healthy. The ads might not be the responsible factor for obesity in children, but it certainly is a very positive direction to take.

Book recommendation - Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Marketing strategies and campaigns from these huge companies have targeted exactly the age groups being considered in the Ofcom guidelines. Fortunately some companies have already taken pre-emptive action ahead of the ban. Burger King said it would voluntarily stop making and showing ads in the UK aimed at children from 22nd December. As parents, we realize that if we start early with giving our children the correct morals, values and eating habits that this will have a positive effect on them as they grow. The big fast food chains and other “junk food” manufacturers use the same method to promote their products.

Beating obesity is the big picture in this fight. Parents want their children to be able to live healthy, without the issues of high cholesterol, diabetes or even the social problems a child might have to suffer. In our attempt to educate our children it might have often become hard when on the other side you had to fight against the side effects of such advertisements. This step however should support us a little more. Education and a good balance should be the focus.

Maybe it might not be so unthinkable that in the future both – parents and the fast food companies – might even achieve more for the future of the children if they worked together. The outcome of this bold step UK has taken might just push these companies not only to re-think their campaigns but also their products. Maybe in the future the prospect of going to a “fast food joint” will not cause parents to cringe but actually look at it with positive feelings. Because in the end which parent would say no to a “fast food” meal prepared with healthier ingredients.

What do you think?

A couple of good articles on child obesity are:
Pester Power on www.arabnews.com
No Child Left Inside on www.dailypressandargus.com

Book recommendation:
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Researched by:
Anupama – Food n More

Written by:
Anupama – Food n More
Meeta - What's For Lunch, Honey?

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