Ban on advertising unhealthy foodstuffs targeted at children?

Health stakeholders increasingly recommend a total ban of the advertising of unhealthy foodstuffs targeted at children. Advertisers call for self-regulation and media-education. 

The British Medical Association (BMA) Board of Science published, on 22 June 2005, a report on preventing childhood obesity. The report highlights the main aspects of childhood nutrition and exercise and provides links to sources of further information. The report is designed as a guide for healthcare professionals on aspects of childhood obesity and makes recommendations for tackling the obesity epidemic in the UK.

On advertising, the report recommends a total ban of the advertising of unhealthy foodstuffs, including inappropriate sponsorship programmes, targeted at school children. 

Further on advertising, the report recommends that:

  • celebrities and children’s television characters should only be associated to healthy products;
  • supermarkets should promote healthy food instead of chocolates, sweets and crisps; 
  • new standards in nutritional content, food labelling, marketing and promotion should be developed and adopted by the food industry;
  • nutritional labelling and health claims should be regulated. 

Responding to the BMA report, the Director of the Food Advertising Unit (FAU), Jeremy Preston, said that the advertising industry recognises the need to change advertising codes to answer public policy concerns, but that a total ban, as proposed by the BMA, would be disproportionate. FAU states that the available academic research does not support the view that food advertising is a significant cause of diet-related problems. 

According to Preston, "the key to addressing the issue effectively is to encourage behavioral change, which can only be achieved through a holistic approach that informs and encourages people to lead active and healthy lifestyles.

In April 2005, the European Heart Network (EHN) published a report on marketing of unhealthy food to children in Europe. It concludes that children need special protection against commercial communications and recommends that TV advertising of unhealthy food to children should be prohibited and the Television Without Frontiers Directive amended accordingly to assure the efficient protection of children at European level. The World Federation of Advertiser (WFA) has criticised the "inaccuracy of some of the data presented in the EHN report". 

According to the WFA, the advertisers agree on that advertising in the context of children needs to be both responsible and sensitive to children and families. In April 2004, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) adopted a 'Framework for responsible food and beverage communications' to ensure that food and beverage advertisements are sensitive to the problem of obesity, particularly with regard to children. 

Responsible Advertising and Children, representing advertiser, agencies and media throughout Europe, believes that responsible commercial communicationsself-regulation and commitment to self-regulatory codes is a major factor in providing a high level of protection for all. Further, it believes that educating children to understand the purpose and context of advertising is crucial (media literacy).


The International Obesity Task Force estimates that 24 per cent of school-age children in Europe (10-20 per cent in Northern, 20-35 per cent in southern Europe) are either overweight or obese, resulting in an increased risk of developing chronic disease. Surveys conducted in Europe since 1970s reveal a rapid increase in the trend since the mid 1990s.

The commercial food and drink marketing to children seems to be dominated by unhealthy products (sweets, crisps, soft drinks etc.) the manufacturers of which use increasingly integrated and sophisticated marketing strategies to target the children - who then have a major influence over parental buying decisions.

With television being a very powerful tool for food marketing, all EU member states are subject to the Television without Frontiers Directive (1989) which restricts advertising and states that advertising must not take advantage of children’s inexperience or directly encourage children to persuade their parents to buy the products being advertised.  

Sweden (and Norway) has already banned advertising aimed at children. Since 1991 advertisements during children’s programs and advertisements at other times have not been allowed to target children under 12 years of age.

  • The Commission launched, on 15 March 2005, an EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health to fight obesity in general.  
  • The Platform members are due to put forward action plans, in the summer 2005, describing their proposed actions and initiatives for 2006. New actions may already be taken during the second half of 2005.


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