Children 'watch same level' of junk food ads despite TV rules

Hamburger and chips
Image caption The rules on the advertising of unhealthy food were introduced amid concerns about child obesity

Children are still exposed to the same level of junk food advertising despite tighter regulations, research suggests.

The UK regulations ban the advertising of foods high in fat, salt or sugar during children's programming.

Newcastle University academics said 6.1% of adverts seen by children were about junk food before the ban - the figure was 7% after the ban.

They said young people do not just watch children's programmes, to which the rules apply.

Sugared drinks

The researchers measured the amount unhealthy food advertising six months before the restrictions were introduced in 2007, and again six months after they were fully implemented in 2009.

They linked this data to how many people saw the adverts, and found there was a rise in the promotion of less healthy items such as crisps, sugared breakfast cereals and drinks containing large amounts of sugar.

The overall proportion of unhealthy items in food adverts increased from 38.6% to 60.4% over this period, and from 5.7% to 8.7% among all adverts.

There was a slight decrease in the amount of food advertising as a part of all advertising, from 14.8% to 14.5%.

The team noted that although most of the adverts stuck to the rules, children were still being exposed to junk food ads during other programming not particularly aimed at them. Their exposure to junk food adverts went from 6.1% to 7%, which is not a big enough change to be considered a "statistical increase".

'Advertising works'

Dr Jean Adams, lecturer in public health at Newcastle University, said: "While adverts stay within the letter of the law, I think we can say we're still not getting the spirit of the law.

"These regulations were brought in to help young people make better lifestyle choices and encourage a healthier diet.

"However, what they are seeing is exactly the same amount of advertising for food which is high in salt or high in sugar and fat as before the regulations came in."

"We know advertising works - otherwise food companies wouldn't use it - so we have a duty to further tighten up the restrictions particularly if we're going to help our young people grow up to make good choices about the food they eat."

The restrictions were phased in by the watchdog Ofcom from 2007 amid concerns about the level of child obesity.

They apply to children's programmes, children's channels and programmes that are expected to attract a lot of young viewers.

Ofcom said its own studies indicated the contrary, that there had been a decrease in how much young people viewed adverts for unhealthy food.

An Ofcom spokeswoman said: "We note the research from the University of Newcastle. Our final review of the rules, which included a full year of data from 2009, showed a significant reduction (37%) in children's exposure to adverts for products that were high in fat, salt and sugar since 2005."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Being overweight and not eating well is bad for our health. Controlling the advertising of food to children is important, but it is only part of the picture.

"We are taking action, including through Change4Life and the Responsibility Deal. We want to make sure that children get the best start possible in life and to make it easier for families to make good choices about food.

"Ofcom introduced significantly tougher restrictions on advertising foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children in 2007."

'Protect children'

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) said the research highlighted a "loophole" in the regulations.

BHF policy manager Mubeen Bhutta said: "To protect children all junk food adverts should be screened after the 9pm watershed and we want to see consistent advertising regulations across all forms of media, including online, to protect our children.

"It's time for the government to put the health of our children above the health of the advertising industry."

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) said the research demonstrated that the current rules did not go far enough.

Dr Kate Allen, director of science and communications at WCRF, said: "Children watch programmes other than kids' TV shows and regulation should be extended to any programme where children make up a significant share of the audience.

"We would also like regulators to tackle the growth of online advertising and marketing aimed at children as well as areas like sports sponsorship."

The research, funded by the Medical Research Council's National Prevention Research Initiative, is published in Plos One.

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