As seen on television
As if orchestrated by a hidden hand the issue of advertising food to children looms large in the media – particularly that section appealing to middle class readers. The Observer led the way with the rehashed claim that the current generation of children will have shorter lives than their parents, due mainly to levels of obesity. There was no recognition, however, of the fact that fat kids do not necessarily go on to be fat adults – in fact only about one third of them do. But then, that would have complicated the Observer's 'junk food timebomb' headline.
Much of the Observer article was taken up with the role of the Food Standards Agency in preventing this 'ticking bomb' from exploding – and the options being entertained by its head, Sir John Krebs. Controls on advertising food to children? Bans on vending machines in schools? Coercing children even more to eat 'proper meals'? All of these, apparently, are up for negotiation.
The Guardian followed quickly on the heels of its Sunday sister with an onslaught on the generation of a 'kiddie consumer world' in which parents were inexorably and unwittingly led to kit their children out with everything from Barbie dolls to Coco Pops and Cheerios. It was the cynical advertising moguls who were clearly to blame for all of society's ills – or was it? In something of a volte face at the end of the article the author, David Hill ponders on the notion that:
"Maybe contemporary disquiet about the hard-selling of junk foods and status-freighted toys and clothes is partly driven by a sentimental fear of children embracing modernity and partly of a piece with the climate of misplaced panic that has parents seeing paedophiles on every street corner and fearful of letting youngsters play outside or walk to school."
The seeming inevitability of a ban on 'junk food adverts' was implicit in much of the coverage in other papers, despite John Kreb's insistence that it is only one of a number of approaches currently being considered. 'Junk food advert ban to lead crackdown on child obesity' announced the Sunday Times. The Independent led with 'Ultimatum over the dangerous foods promoted by stars', while the Scotsman was content simply to repeat the claim of 'Kids on fast-food course to an early grave' along with the Mail's 'Diet that may cut kid's lives.' Even the Telegraph had little to say against the draconian plans being drawn up by government ministers.
When a problem becomes evident it is, of course, the British approach to seek to ban something. Lager louts cannot carry cans of their favourite tipple with them in public in many town centres – but it doesn't seem to have improved their civility very much. Tobacco advertising has been banned – except when it is necessary to protect the survival of those poor Formula 1 racing people, who just happened to give a fat donation to the Labour Party – but teenage girls are continuing to puff away on Malboro Lights in increasing numbers. And much of the FSA's rationale for a ban of kid's food promotion is based on the much vaunted review of the evidence by Gerald Hastings and his colleagues at the University for Strathclyde – a man who cut his teeth in the promotional field, so to speak, at the Tobacco Control Research Centre.
The report, which runs to nearly 200 pages, addresses, among other things, the question of whether or not food promotion to children has an effect in terms of buying and consuming behaviours. It acknowledges that there are 'gaps in the evidence' and that it is impossible 'to provide incontrovertible proof of such effects.' Hastings et al, conclude, however:
"in our judgement, however, the review provides sufficient evidence to show that food promotion can have and is having an effect on children, particularly in the areas of food preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption."
Note the use of the word 'judgement' in the extract above. There is also no quantification of the effects that have been 'judged' to exist – surely something we need to know if an advertising ban is to achieve anything more that a trivial impact. One of the studies reviewed by Hastings suggests that the effect, while 'significant' might only account for a 2% impact on what children buy, or urge their parents to buy for them. The really significant factors must, presumably, lie elsewhere and would be quite unaffected by the current proposals. None of this seems to concern those who want a quick fix to the problem, and the attendant image of appearing to be doing something about it, rather than a more calm, evidence-based, but less headline-worthy approach to the broader issues.
But then, just as everybody was seeming to agree that such was the terrible state of affairs that tough measures were required, along come the YouGov opinion poll – commissioned and published by Spiked online. The FSA, government ministers and the self-elected guardians of the nation's diet might all think that an advertising ban is both necessary and a jolly good idea. But parents around the country appear to be much less impressed. According to the poll, conducted on a representative sample of 2,400, only a tiny five percent thought that banning food advertising to children should be a government priority in protecting children's health. A similarly small number (6%) had any faith in the government's healthy eating advice. The overwhelming majority of people – parents and non-parents – in Britain (94%) believe that it is mums and dads who have the primary responsibility for ensuring that their children get a proper diet – not the government, not the schools, and most certainly not the food industry.
All of this must come as an irritation to those who felt that they had come up with a 'good idea' that would receive widespread support. It might have done in the British press. But ordinary people appear to have more common sense about food and diet than the government and its agencies give them credit for.
There is one other key finding in the YouGov poll which should, but probably won't, give a more salient focus to the debate about children's diet. It is the fact that the greatest perceived priority for government in this area, noted by a third of respondents, is 'child poverty reduction.' It is generally acknowledged, but seldom stressed, that it is the poorer families with busy and harassed parents, who have the least time to devote to ensuring that their children receive a balanced diet. They cannot afford what is increasingly becoming a 'luxury' of family life – and it is a problem that only substantial economic interventions will ever remedy. Meanwhile, advertising bans would be largely without significant cost – except to the Treasury in terms of lost tax revenues. What a pity that very few people who the FSA is aiming to 'help' appear to want them.
11 November 2003