Recently, a trend towards more food and marketing restrictions on the European Union and member state level to fight child obesity has come to the fore. However, paternalism as a means to address this pressing problem has not proved to be successful, and European policymakers should look beyond populist solutions. This policy note provides a set of arguments as to why advertising and marketing restrictions do not work.
Note: For this paper, junk food is defined as foods high in fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS). Member states are responsible for the definition of their health policy, and there is no common EU definition of what is deemed unhealthy food.
On April 14th, 2021, Members of the European Parliament debated the possibility of introducing EU-wide rules to restrict junk food ads targeting children. The push in the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) came during the vote on the Farm to Fork strategy intended to make the EU’s agriculture greener. Although, in the end, an amendment calling for binding rules for junk food ads aimed at children was rejected, the MEPs agreed that the existing rules need to be revised.
Few days before the vote, on April 12th, Germany pushed the self-regulating body of the ad industry to tighten its rules in regards to junk food advertising. The new self-regulation is greater in scope than existing EU-wide requirements and applies to all channels: television, online platforms, or social media, and the age limit of the target group has been raised to 14 years old.
The idea is hardly new. In 2016, a set of European health organisations called for a ban on TV adverts for alcohol or food high in fat, salt, and sugar between 6 am and 11 pm as well as product placement of said products. The “What about our kids?” campaign, led by Romanian MEP Daciana Octavia Sârbu and organised by 10 European health organisations, called for a change of the Audio-Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) to impose a watershed on junk food advertising at a time when the directive was undergoing a review.
The then-EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs Markos Kyprianou emphasised that obesity was on the rise in Europe, and there was a need for advertising bans. In order to tackle the problem, the Commissioner warned junk food companies that unless they agree to voluntarily reduce advertising to children and ensure clear labelling of their products, the EU would introduce the necessary regulation.
To effectively reduce the exposure of children to junk food, Article 9.4 of the updated in 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 inappropriate audiovisual commercial communications, accompanying or included in children’s programmes, for foods and beverages containing nutrients and substances with a nutritional or physiological effect, in particular fat, trans-fatty acids, salt or sodium and sugars, of which excessive intakes in the overall diet are not recommended.
The EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity 2014-2020 developed by the EU Member States recognised that tools to restrict marketing and advertising to children and young people should go beyond TV and include all marketing elements as well as in-store environments, promotional actions, internet presence and social media.
However, Germany’s modified rules of conduct are wider in scope and aim to integrate all online channels that can have an impact on children’s nutrition choices. Crucially, Germany’s shift towards more paternalism will likely have implications across the Union, and there is every reason to expect other member states to follow. The UK, on the other hand, recently dropped its plans for an online junk food ad ban, and, using evidence at hand, the EU can avoid making this costly mistake.