The debate over whether there are links between food advertising and childhood obesity is starting to make certain suppliers feel unwell. And their symptoms look set to get worse as a summer of awareness-raising by the pro-ban lobby at the expense of the likes of Cadbury and McDonald’s turns into a winter of discontent with MPs and government rushing to make their mark.
The industry is worried. This week the major trade bodies for food and advertising pledged a joint approach to find solutions. The Food and Drink Federation, Food Advertising Unit, British Retail Consortium, NFU, British Hospitality Association and Incorporated Society of British Advertisers said industry, government and health professionals needed to work together.
But is it too late? Will the government take the view some foods are as bad as cigarettes and ban them being advertised to kids?
The debate went up a gear at the end of September with the publication of the Food Standards Agency’s report into the impact of food advertising on children and Labour MP Debra Shipley’s introduction of a bill seeking to ban advertising of “high fat, high sugar and high salt content food and drinks during pre-school TV programmes”.
Last week advertising agencies such as Leo Burnett and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO were hauled in front of the Health Select Committee’s inquiry into obesity, thanks to their involvement in accounts such as McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, Pepsi and Walkers.
Then there was the FSA again - this time with policy options related to promotional activity and children’s diets. This includes advice to ministers such as banning food ads aimed at pre-school children, restricting the frequency of ads promoting less healthy foods, banning the use of kids’ TV presenters or cartoon characters in food ads or putting a levy on such food ads - using it to fund the promotion of healthier diets.
The issues around rising childhood obesity are, of course, complex. There is no way you can divorce obesity from social issues such as sedentary lifestyles, closure of school playing fields, the school car run and parents’ worries over the safety of letting their children run free in streets and parks. But advertising is an easy target - and one where the anti-lobby can get a quick win.
“Political opinion is going against advertising and the food industry,” says Warwick Smith, MD of Citigate Public Affairs, which lobbies on behalf of food companies.
Conservative health spokesman Chris Grayling, who is assembling an advisory group to help shape a Tory approach, says regulation is wrong. “We need the kind of broad public health education we saw with AIDS, and the kind of attitude change that has taken place towards drink-driving.
“But there is no doubt there is a rising head of steam behind some form of regulation. The Select Committee is very likely to make a recommendation.”
Brussels and the WHO are further down the road towards enforcing advertising restrictions in the UK. Sweden, Belgium, Denmark and Greece already have some sort of restriction on advertising to children and, during its stewardship of the EU, Sweden pushed hard for a European ban. At the Children and Nutrition Congress in Berlin, EU consumer affairs and health commissioner David Byrne hinted his proposed directive on Unfair Commercial Practices may be used to introduce restrictive legislation on the use of sports stars in food ads directed at children. He believes there should be pan-European regulation as an enlarged EU will make it difficult to police voluntary guidelines.
At the World Federation of Advertising’s 50th anniversary agm last month in Brussels, advertising legislation was on the agenda. Charlie Crowe of agency C Squared, who was at the event, says: “EU policymakers are less inclined to believe the arguments of the advertising industry when they say they can control the issue through self-regulation.”
According to Smith, procedures under way on a global level mirror those that preceded the tobacco ad ban. “The WHO passed a resolution on tobacco and is now considering one on obesity, treating each as an ‘epidemic’ or ‘disease’. The FSA’s policy options are indicative of the momentum now behind this issue and how the anti-obesity/health lobbyists have got behind it while the food companies are struggling to appear coherent and responsible.”
Crowe thinks the food industry should note the tobacco industry’s mistakes. “It said it was not about smoking more but rather encouraging people to switch brands - then it unsuccessfully tried to support this claim.”
Manufacturers, meanwhile, are keen to put out the message they advertise responsibly. Heinz has released global guidelines for all consumer communication, including references to children’s advertising.
“The worldwide guidelines highlight the fact that Heinz has a responsibility to help consumers make informed and healthy choices,” says Heinz Europe general manager corporate affairs Michael Mullen.
Cadbury Schweppes says 18 months ago it identified “early stages of a new kind of consumerism”. It created a senior team including the chairman and CEO to ensure a responsible approach to food and nutrition policy and practices. Since then a cross functional global team has been formed which includes expertise in medicine, science, and nutrition while Trish Fields, the new director, consumer impact, will ensure policies are converted into action quickly.
It may be too late. Smith says: “The industry is doing a lot but is seems as if it is playing catch up. MPs feel ‘they would say that’ or are ‘only doing it because they know we’ll make them’.”
It took 15 years for Brussels to get its way on tobacco. Food advertisers had better be prepared for the long slog ahead.
Obesity and food advertising:
May 2002: WHO report ‘Diet, nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic diseases’ is published. To speed up the publication, normal internal WHO procedures are not fully respected (the report is not considered by the WHO executive).
December 2002: EU member states makes a call for preventive action on obesity at the Health Council. The Commission is working on an action plan and has already adopted a proposal for legislation on nutritional claims.
January 2003: A Commission report suggests a ban on advertising is not necessary as the ‘Television without frontiers’ directive gives an adequate regulatory framework. But in some member states, pressure increases from MPs to restrict or prohibit advertising to children.
2003: Health Commissioner David Byrne makes many references in his speeches to the need to tackle obesity.
July 2003: Commission publishes proposed regulation on nutrition and health claims, its first major obesity-related legislation. It aims to give full transparency of claims on a scientific basis (eg ‘low fat’) so consumers can make informed choices.
November 2003: Commission proposes new regulation on addition of vitamins and minerals. Additions which do not meet a nutritional threshold will not be allowed to be labelled as having a nutritional or health benefit.
2004: The Commission work programme for 2004 should put some priority to all the above. It includes a proposed revision of nutritional labelling Directive (90/496/EC) in order to update it and ‘bring it into line with consumer expectations’. The various UK government groups looking at the issue will feed into the WHO and EU initiatives. Tobacco ad ban (Europe):
1988: An initial proposal focusing on bills and posters is introduced but blocked.
1992: The Commission resuscitates it as a general tobacco ad ban, going beyond the ‘TV without frontiers’ directive. This second directive is halted by a ‘blocking minority’ in the Council of the UK, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
1997: The change of UK government leads to the end of the blocking minority and a political agreement is reached in the Council. The directive is formally adopted as Directive 98/43/EC on July 6, 1998.
1998: The directive is challenged by Germany on the basis that article 100A only allows for legislation in the field of internal market issues and there are none in many provisions of the directive. The European Court of Justice rules two years later that the directive is null and void.
2001: The Commission issues two new initiatives taking into account the ECJ ruling: a new proposal for a tobacco ad ban directive and a recommendation (ie non-binding) for those provisions that could not be the subject of binding legislation.
2003: This directive is adopted as Directive 2003/33 on May 26. It has to be implemented nationally by the member states.