How to tackle obesity in the EU

With the end of the pandemic in sight, European policymakers are reflecting on what could have been done to prevent the damage.

Obesity, recognised by many scientists as a severe risk factor COVID-19, is likely to top the European policy agenda. However, while the temptation to slide into paternalism and impose advertising and marketing restrictions, or potentially, sin taxes is high, it is crucial to follow the evidence and protect the freedom to choose.

Earlier this month, Members of the European Parliament debated the possibility of introducing EU-wide rules to restrict junk food ads targeting children, while Germany pushed the self-regulating body of the ad industry to tighten its rules in regards to junk food advertising. 

Currently, there is no common EU definition on what makes for junk food but there have been multiple attempts to introduce Union-wide regulation of advertising. Article 9.4 of the updated 2018 Audiovisual Media Services Directive 2010/13/EU encourages the use of co-regulation and the fostering of self-regulation through codes of conduct regarding salty or sugary foods. However, Germany’s new regulation is wider in scope and aims to integrate all online channels that can have an impact on children’s nutrition choices. Germany’s shift towards more paternalism will be felt across the Union, and there is every reason to expect other member states to follow.

The link between advertising — in particular TV ads — and childhood obesity is unfounded. If it was possible to reduce obesity with the help of advertising bans, the success of such a strategy would be also visible in regards to other products such as alcohol. One study looked at bans on broadcast advertising in seventeen OECD countries for the years 1975-2000, concerning per capita alcohol consumption. It was found that a complete ban of broadcast advertising of all beverages does not affect consumption relative to countries that do not ban broadcast advertising.

Advertising or marketing bans stem from the assumption that the sole reason why obesity develops and persists is due to poor nutrition. But that is not the case: obesity is a matter of physical inactivity too. According to a report published by the European Commission and WHO in 2018, only 19% of 11-13-year olds in Germany were physically active. The situation is disastrous, and by opting for junk food ad bans, the German government will simply regulate in the wrong direction.

The effectiveness of these bans is highly questionable too. The UK recently dropped its plans to introduce such a ban because it was found that nutrition would have been decreased by slightly more than 1000 calories per year per child, but have a negative impact on businesses and consumers.

In order to tackle child obesity, we should encourage parental responsibility. Childrens’ choices are heavily dependent on the environment where they grow up and often model behaviours that are treated as acceptable. Parents who don’t lead healthy lifestyles will likely make it seem like exercising and eating vegetables is less rewarding than lying on a couch all day long and drinking soda. Furthermore, it is crucial that parents display healthy eating behaviour through activities such as family meals.

Instead of resorting to advertising and marketing bans, the EU and member states should also focus on educating children about junk food consumption and general health to ensure they can make informed and responsible consumer decisions.

Originally published here.

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