This is how candy commercials harm children's health

The Government will regulate food advertising aimed at children and adolescents. In Spain, until now, the legislation is based on the self-regulation of the industry through the Code of co-regulation of the Advertising of Food and beverages aimed at minors, prevention of Obesity and Health (PAOS Code). The new regulations will prohibit advertisements for chocolate and sugar confectionery products, energy bars, sweet toppings and desserts, pastry products, energy drinks, juices and ice creams. In addition, public figures will be prohibited from participating in any food advertising for children, whether healthy or not.

As a result of the publication of the draft of the Royal Decree, the debate on the regulation of advertising in terms of restriction of freedoms was reopened. However, the fundamental issue here should be the right to protection of the health of children and adolescents.

The child population does not differentiate, until 5 or 6 years old, between entertainment and advertising. That is to say, that the children are going to observe, with the same attention, the commercials and the programs on television. Between 8 and 12 years old it will be when they begin to understand the objective of the advertisements, but they will continue to be vulnerable to these advertising stimuli, such as these.

Although many brands deny it, the child population has become one of the main targets of food advertising. In fact, a report from the European Commission showed how the child and adolescent population is exposed, on average, to 5 daily advertisements of unhealthy food and drinks. In the case of Spain, according to a study carried out by the University of Seville, 9 out of 10 advertisements for products aimed at children in 2021 were for ultra-processed products (chocolates, cookies, industrial pastries, fast food and breakfast cereals). And this without taking into account the rest of the advertising impacts that minors receive on public roads, in supermarkets, etc.

Reduce the perception of risk

There is scientific evidence that advertising influences diet. A recently published systematic review in JAMA Pediatrics shows how advertising modifies the decisions, preferences, and eating habits of the younger population. For this reason, some brands follow a conscious strategy that seeks to normalize and reduce the perception of risk associated with the consumption of ultra-processed products that they advertise.

Food advertising aimed at children uses different animation tools and resources. Like the astronauts in the Actimel ads, the rabbit in Nesquik, or the dog in Chocapic. They also use messages that associate these ultra-processed products with fun. In turn, there is a pressure component. If a child asks for a specific cookie 10 times, the probability that he will end up buying it increases. In turn, the minor may feel frustrated or angry if the product is not purchased. In short, there is a whole segment of the food industry dedicated to trying to sell their products to minors, or employing them to try to sell them to parents.

According to the most recent data, in Spain, 53.6% of the adult population is overweight (37.6% is overweight and 16% is obese). In boys, girls and adolescents (8 to 16 years old), the PASOS study found that 20.7% were overweight and 14.2% obese. This places Spain as one of the countries with the most childhood obesity.

Accessible ultra-processed

These figures are not something that can be explained in individual terms. We must analyze the current food environment, where the most available, accessible, affordable and desirable are ultra-processed products. These are cheap products, very appetizing, also very easy to obtain, but with very little or no nutritional value, such as sugary drinks (soft drinks, juices and milk drinks).

It is in this framework that, among other things, the advertising and promotion of these products influences childhood obesity. And where it should be evident that the economic interests of the food industry and the interests of public health do not always coincide. For this reason, it is necessary to insist on the implementation of health protection policies. Like those that act on the elements and factors that, like advertising, influence child and adolescent health.

The regulation proposed by the Government is very similar to the proposal of the World Health Organization to limit the advertising and promotion of unhealthy products. Other states of the European Union, such as Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands or Belgium, already have similar regulations. In the case of the United Kingdom, last year, any advertisement for products with a high content of fat, salt and sugar was also prohibited before 9:00 p.m. at night. And outside of Europe, countries such as Uruguay or Chile have prohibited the advertising of unhealthy foods in spaces frequented by children and adolescents, such as educational centers.

Julia Diez (@JuliaDiez91) is a doctor in Epidemiology and Public Health and researches on inequalities, food and health.

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