APAC ‘junk food’ ad bans: Health experts encouraged by ‘feasible and politically acceptable’ UK move

By Pearly Neo contact

- Last updated on GMT

APAC public health experts say they are optimistic that the UK’s recent moves to ban TV ‘junk food’ ads before 9pm will encourage governments in the region to adopt similar measures. ©Getty Images
APAC public health experts say they are optimistic that the UK’s recent moves to ban TV ‘junk food’ ads before 9pm will encourage governments in the region to adopt similar measures. ©Getty Images

Related tags: Junk food, ban, Advertising

APAC public health experts say they are optimistic that the UK’s recent moves to ban TV ‘junk food’ ads before 9pm will encourage governments in the region to adopt similar measures – but also want more comprehensive restrictions that cover digital media.

According to documents from the Obesity Policy Coalition, in APAC at present only South Korea and Taiwan have mandatory restrictions on marketing unhealthy food to children.

Australia and New Zealand have voluntary measures in place, whereas Malaysia also has a voluntary food industry pledge on this marketing.

Experts say that anything less than mandatory is not sufficient to make an impact, but also that governments have been holding back due to political or economic reasons – and hopefully this move by the UK will change the situation.

“The recent UK announcement [definitely] demonstrates to governments in APAC that it is both feasible and politicly acceptable to adopt comprehensive policy measures to tackle obesity,”​ Professor Gary Sacks at the Global Obesity Centre told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“In both Australia and Malaysia, governments have been talking about taking action on junk foods ads for some time, but, so far, political leaders haven’t had the courage to implement strong policies in the area - As more countries show what’s possible, it’ll make it easier for other countries to follow their lead.”

‘Junk food’​ in this context will cover not just fast food meals from foodservice outlets, but also packaged foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat – so anything from potato chips to candies to sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).

Singapore already has bans in place restricting the marketing of SSBs​, and National University of Singapore (NUS) public health researcher Salome Antonette Rebello believes that a ‘logical next step’​ would be to expand this to all ‘junk foods’.

“The current regulations [are] an important step in the right direction, [and] expanding this to other foods that contain high amounts of sodium, unhealthy fats or sugars is a logical extension,”​ Rebello told us.

“This would be very welcome as part of a broader strategic plan to improve the promotion, availability, and accessibility of healthier foods relative to unhealthy foods.

Over in Thailand, Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research researcher Sirinya Phulkerd concurred, adding that this was good guidance for Thailand in figuring out where to start any relevant legislation.

“The UK success does give us hope, guiding us where to start especially [for] digital media which [has] become such a popular information channel amongst young people, and can exploit particularly children who are more susceptible than adults,”​ she told us.

She added that the 9pm timing was particularly important in Thailand as studies had shown that the ‘prime time’ advertising slot for ads to children and youth comes in at between 6am to 10am and 3pm to 8pm on weekends, and 3pm to 8pm on weekdays.

That said, Prof Sacks said that although evenings are generally when children are most likely to be exposed to unhealthy TV food advertising, setting a 9pm cut-off time was unlikely to solve the problem completely.

“We know that children don’t just watch TV during dedicated children’s shows – they also watch TV when adults are watching,”​ he said.

Will governments really take action?

Despite all the hope and optimism expressed, the question still remains as to whether or not APAC governments will take a leaf from the UK’s book and take any practical action – and the experts appear to still remain hopeful, saying that a lot is actually already in progress.

“Thailand is already in the process of developing a guideline for food marketing to children, which is expected to be released next year,”​ said Phulkerd.

“Although we cannot tell exactly how long it will be before such a ban is implemented, [it is not expected] to take too long as all food marketing key stakeholders, including food and media (both online and offline platforms) regulators have been involved in the guideline development process.”

Prof Sacks added that something similar is ongoing in Australia, which is in the process of developing a National Obesity Strategy although it has not yet been confirmed that ‘junk food’ ad bans will be part of this. In Malaysia though, it appears to be a bit more complicated.

“In Malaysia, there are indications that the Malaysian government supports this policy action - In 2015 they even co-hosted (with WHO) a Biregional workshop to guide member states [on this issue],”​ he said.

“But, at the moment, Malaysia relies on a voluntary pledge from the food industry in this area, [and] we know from other countries that these types of pledges are completely ineffective at reducing the exposure of children to’ junk foo’d ads.

“The main challenge for governments to implement recommended policies in this area is strong opposition from the food industry, as obviously food companies are heavily against any policies that can harm their profits.

“Companies know that their ads work and that’s why they want to be left alone to run them when their target audience is watching.  So until government leaders are willing to stand up to industry, and put the health of the country above the profits of big companies, there won’t be any changes.”

Phulkerd also called for stronger political leadership to push policies such as these through, whatever the country.

Important everywhere

All three experts also pushed for such bans to be implemented in their respective countries of study due to rises in overweight and obesity issues in each population.

For example, in Australia one quarter of children are overweight or obese, indicating major health and economic consequences for the country in the future, whereas in Thailand over one-third of children are overweight or obese as well.

“Overweight and obesity were the third leading risk factor for death in Thai population, causing 815,000 DALYs or 30,986 deaths in 2014,” ​said Phulkerd.

“Thai people, especially children are bombarded with unhealthy food promotions - In 2016, the food industry in Thailand, particularly soft drink manufacturers, spent US$24.5mn on advertising their products. Therefore, the ‘junk food’ ban is an effective tool in tackling obesity in Thailand.”

Prof Sacks added that scientific studies had already shown the importance of these restrictions, regardless of the country.

The rise of online advertising

That said, solving the television ads problem is also unlikely to eradicate the issue, mostly due to the rapid rise of food and beverage advertising in videos targeted at children on social media – and studies here have also shown that this is an issue, albeit a much less-discussed one thus far.

“It is of value to consider measures that strengthen advertising regulations of unhealthy foods across platforms in Singapore. So not just for TV, but also outdoor food advertising (such as at bus-stops) and for digital spaces,”​ said Rebello.

“Given the high levels of digital media engagement among Singaporeans, we should pay more attention to the types of marketing on these spaces. Some preliminary results from an ongoing study we’re finalising suggest that similar to other countries foods marketed on social media spaces in Singapore tend to be unhealthy.

“For example, we found that on the Singapore social media pages of 15 top F&B companies, just 13% of the 1699 foods or beverages featured in 1261 posts were of core foods such as fruits, pulses or vegetables. A vast majority featured either non-core foods (58%) such as sweet snacks or sugary drinks, or mixed dishes (29%) such burgers, fried chicken or noodle dishes.

“It would therefore be valuable to consider measures that strengthen advertising regulations of unhealthy foods across platforms and food categories in Singapore.”

Prof Sacks concurred, citing a similar 2018 study previously conducted in Malaysia which found that over half (56.3%) of foods and beverages promoted on YouTube videos targeting children promoted non-core foods.

“Policies regulating food marketing to children need to be extended to cover online content in line with a rapidly-evolving digital media environment,” ​said the study.

Prof Sacks stressed that a comprehensive policy response beyond just television ad targeting is needed to address obesity as one measure on its own is only likely to have a small impact.

On the other hand, Phulkerd pushed for better trade and investment policies in Thailand, targeting at integrating food markets to encourage healthy eating.

“Thailand [needs to] focus on [mechanisms] to ensure that the development and implementation of policies and actions are coherent with national health objectives and support progress towards national goals,”​ she said.

“[These] should also support policy integration and the extent to which policies support each other in addressing obesity and unhealthy diets.”

In Singapore, Rebello recommended the implementation of mandatory front-of-pack labels for food – similar to the Nutri-Grade labelling​ developed by the Singapore government for SSBs, but for food products.

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