Obesity is a societal problem

The EU’s approach to food advertising to children must change if it is to e­ffectively tackle the obesity epidemic, says Daciana Octavia Sârbu.

Daciana Octavia Sârbu | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Daciana Octavia Sârbu

18 May 2017

Obesity is a common risk factor behind much of the chronic disease burden in Europe. The causes and impacts of this condition are diverse and complex, and the relative contribution of environmental, genetic, behavioural and other factors can be discussed at length.

But one thing is clear: the consequences are felt far and wide, by individuals, families, employers, health services and governments. In short, this is a societal problem.

Poor access to healthcare and education exacerbates social inequalities and contributes to the so-called obesogenic environment.


Meanwhile, technological innovation has made access to broadcast media and audiovisual communications more widespread than ever before. The promotional messages carried by this increasingly diverse and far-reaching digital media have a huge impact on consumer behaviour, and the rules which govern advertising - across all platforms - are therefore critical.

A key part of the battle against obesity - the promotion of junk food to children - is being lost to the false promise of self-regulation. The inherent di­fficulties of asking an industry to deliberately reduce the promotion of its own products are clear.

It is hardly surprising that the rules agreed under the ‘EU pledge’ - the flagship self-regulatory scheme lauded by large food companies and, thus far, the European Commission - were exposed for having weak definitions of key terms like ‘child audience’. This has allowed the large-scale advertising of unhealthy foods to children to continue, and yet still be considered compatible with the rules.

This approach must change, and over the next few weeks the European Parliament has a chance to do just that. The upcoming votes on the audiovisual media services directive, first in the culture committee and then in plenary, will help decide EU legislation and policy towards advertising to children in both traditional broadcast media and online content.

This is our chance to re-orientate the rules in favour of preventative healthcare, and to discourage unhealthy eating behaviours in childhood before they become entrenched habits for life.

As many doctors and health organisations have been arguing for years, a vote for proper regulation of food and drink advertising, especially to children, is a vote for better public health and for a future generation of healthier adults less afflicted by chronic disease.

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