A new report puts food advertising in the same danger bracket as tobacco, Liz Hamson finds

Fears that food manufacturing could be subjected to the same strict regulations as tobacco intensified this week as the FSA published a damning report on the impact of food advertising on kids.

The report, ‘Does Food Promotion Influence Children?’, warns that advertising strongly influences children’s preferences, purchases and dietary habits.

It attacks what it calls the ‘advertised diet’ and the “themes of fun and fantasy or taste, rather than health and nutrition used to promote it”, arguing that, while the impact of television advertising is waning, its scope has widened to add promotion of fast food outlets to that of the so-called Big Four - pre-sugared breakfast cereals, soft drinks, confectionery and sugary snacks.

Professor Gerard Hastings, whose team at the Centre for Social Marketing at the University of Strathclyde carried out the research for the FSA, adds they have probably underestimated the impact as the research only takes advertising into account and not the full gamut of marketing media.

The report, based on a review of more than 30 years of research, has provoked anxious responses from an industry already fending off accusations that it is to blame for the UK’s child obesity problem.

Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation, says: “They’re saying the advertised diet is less healthy, but what is being advertised is not a diet - it’s breakfast cereals and snacks.”

Urging the government not to use this as a platform to regulate, he adds: “There’s a huge array of regulations that already bite down in this area. We need to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Food and drink are not tobacco. We’ll step up to the plate and work in partnership with the government and FSA, but we need to avoid demonising anyone - or patronising consumers.”

Deborah Risby is communications manager at Kraft, which has recently found itself in the firing line for its Lunchables product. She strenuously denies that the company encouraged children to eat unhealthily.

“We avoid marketing activity which would take advantage of children’s limited ability to process information and make rational choices,” she says. “We affirm the role of parents in making food selection for their children. We are not saying children are not a target, but they do not make the purchasing decisions.”