Regulating Food Advertising to Children

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Scholars propose accountability model to regulate how food is marketed to children.

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Around the world, approximately 170 million children under the age of 18 are estimated to be overweight or obese. Childhood obesity can lead to serious health consequences, including an increased risk for heart disease, sleep disorders, cancer, and early death.

The way companies market their food and beverages to children affects what they eat. In a recent paper, two legal scholars show how food advertising regulations in six countries—including the United States—fail to protect children adequately from excessive promotion of unhealthy foods.

Belinda Reeve and Roger Magnusson of the University of Sydney Law School assess the strengths and weaknesses of each country’s regulatory schemes. They identify three distinct schemes used to regulate food advertising to children: statutory regulation, where a government entity develops and implements the regulation; co-regulation, where the regulatory process is shared by public and private entities; and self-regulation, where the industry itself writes, monitors, and enforces the rules.

In the United States, food industries self-regulate in the form of an industry pledge. Following the release of a report by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommending an expansion of self-regulatory standards for food marketing to children, U.S. food producers in 2006 established the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

Administered by the nongovernmental Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB), the CFBAI sets uniform nutrition standards for the food that participants advertise to children under the age of 12. Eighteen companies, including McDonalds, Kellogg, Ferrero, and Coca-Cola, have signed a voluntary pledge to follow the advertising standards adopted as part of the CFBAI.

According to the CFBAI, “child-directed advertising” includes television, radio, print, and third-party websites where 35 percent or more of the audience includes children under the age of 12. Participants in the CFBAI agree to promote only “healthier choice products” in interactive games targeted at children, as well as to avoid advertising branded foods and beverages in elementary schools. The CBBB sanctions those participants that violate the pledge. Sanctions include expelling participants from the CFBAI and notifying regulatory authorities of breaches.

Reeve and Magnusson note, however, that self-regulation does not necessarily lead to improvements in food advertising aimed at children. Although industry evaluations show high levels of compliance, evaluations by independent contractors offer a different story. In some instances, self-regulation has led to reductions in children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing. Other research, however, has shown that the “vast majority of food advertising seen by children continues to be for unhealthy products.” One study even showed an increase in the promotion of unhealthy foods to children.

One of the issues, Reeve and Magnusson note, lies in the fact that public health experts and food industry actors have different ideas about the goals of food advertising regulation. For the food industry, the aim is to reduce the amount of unhealthy food advertisements targeted at children. In contrast, public health advocates argue that the aim is to reduce the overall amount of food advertising children receive—whether targeted at adults or children—because of children’s vulnerability to advertising. Self-regulation, according to public health officials, should be replaced by “comprehensive statutory restrictions on food marketing to children, accompanied by effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.”

To help governments design more “robust and effective” regulatory schemes, Reeve and Magnusson propose an “accountability model” that would enhance advertising regulation’s transparency and accountability. The proposed framework addresses three domains of regulatory design: the content of the regulation; the method of administering the regulatory scheme; and how the regulations are enforced. In line with the public health advocates, this “accountability model” presupposes that the government will play a central role in the regulatory scheme.

Reeve and Magnusson first suggest the content of the regulation should contain measurable, clear objectives that can be assessed. Key terms should be clearly defined, and objectives should be achievable.

Second, the regulatory process should incorporate transparency and accountability. An independent body should be responsible for monitoring an advertising scheme and assessing its performance with regular, structured review to ensure objectives are being reached.

Finally, an independent body should enforce the standards by accepting and investigating complaints. That body should be authorized to offer incentives to “encourage and reward high levels of compliance.”

Substantial room for improvement exists in the regulation of food advertising to children, Reeve and Magnusson conclude. Their proposed accountability model could assist in reducing children’s consumption of unhealthy food and, by extension, reduce rates of childhood obesity.