junk food

Opinion: Learn from Britain — a junk food ad ban is a bad idea

The outdated playbook of trying to tax and ban things out of existence in a misguided effort to change people’s behaviour

Childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled in the last 30 years. Almost one in three Canadian children is overweight or obese, according to data from Statistics Canada. In an effort to tackle this growing problem, Health Canada has announced it is considering sweeping new legislation to restrict junk food advertising.

A similar plan was mooted but not adopted a few years back, but public health regulators now feel empowered to push this tired idea partly because the British government recently signed off on a new law banning television advertisements before nine in the evening for foods high in sugar. Health Canada says it is examining the British law and recommitting to implementing something similar in Canada.

The months the British government has spent dancing around this issue ought to be enough to ward off any right-thinking Canadian. The law it eventually came up with was a watered-down version of the original proposal, which would have banned all online advertising of anything the government considered “junk food.” Bakeries could have been committing a crime by posting pictures of cakes to Instagram.

The U.K. government now promises its new legislation will eliminate that possibility. But that doesn’t mean the ban is a useful public policy tool. First and foremost, ad bans simply do not work. The British government’s own analysis of its policy predicts it will remove a grand total of 1.7 calories from kids’ diets per day. That’s roughly the equivalent of 1/30th of an Oreo cookie.

It’s safe to assume the same policy would have similarly underwhelming results here in Canada. It won’t help reduce child obesity but it will make life more complicated for the country’s food industry. All this, just as the world enters a post-COVID economic recovery and countries like Britain and Canada need growth and investment more than ever.

The junk food ad ban was pushed through in the U.K. on the back of a sinister campaign weaponizing children’s voices. As the government wrapped up its public consultation on the proposal, it lauded a conveniently timed report supposedly highlighting the crying need for such a drastic policy intervention. The report — or “exposé,”’ as it was branded — was cooked up by Biteback 2030, a pressure group fronted by celebrity chefs and Dolce & Gabbana models. Absent hard evidence or coherent arguments for the centralization of decision-making on a matter as fundamental as what to have for dinner, it made its point by shamelessly putting interventionist politics into children’s mouths.

“I’m a 16-year-old boy,” read its introduction. “I feel like I’m being bombarded with junk food ads on my phone and on my computer. And I’m pretty sure this is getting worse.” Canadians who value free markets and individual liberties should be on the lookout for similar tactics from nanny-statists bent on drowning entire industries in red tape and consigning any notion of freedom of choice to the history books. It is incredibly paternalistic for the government to limit what advertisements adult consumers can see, as the ban would eliminate the targeted ads from all TV programming before nine p.m.

There is plenty Canada can do to fight obesity without resorting to blanket advertising bans, following the outdated playbook of trying to tax and ban things out of existence in a misguided effort to change people’s behaviour. The ban completely ignores the other half of the obesity equation, which is of course physical activity.

Obesity is a serious problem. It could even become the next pandemic. But as this junk food ad ban statement from Health Canada shows, powerful public health regulators are asleep at the wheel. They claim to be acting in Canadians’ best interest but they have nothing new to add to the policy debate.

Originally published here.

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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