Why we need to protect children from junk food, alcohol and gambling ads

Dr Tim Chambers explains the damaging effects of marketing of unhealthy commodities on children’s health and what we can do to tackle the problem.

Unhealthy commodities such as junk food, alcohol, and gambling are leading causes of non-communicable diseases, mental illness, injury, and many social harms. The collective global health burden of diet– and alcohol-related diseases is estimated at five million deaths each year.  But what is the role of marketing of these unhealthy commodities in driving their growing consumption?

Unhealthy commodities marketing through the eyes of a child

Children’s exposure to unhealthy commodities marketing, regardless of the product, has an adverse impact on their health. For example, junk food marketing shapes children’s dietary preferences and alcohol marketing is positively associated with earlier onset drinking and the likelihood of engaging in hazardous drinking. Children are particularly susceptible to marketing as they are unable to fully comprehend the biases inherent in ads. But with the unprecedented access and engagement with different media, how much marketing for unhealthy commodities are children actually seeing on a daily basis?

To answer this question I was recently involved in the ground-breaking Kids’Cam study which found children were exposed to an average of 27 junk food, 12 alcohol, and seven gambling advertisements every day. The high rates of exposure to unhealthy commodities marketing is unacceptable as it breaches international law which enshrines children’s rights to the highest standard of health. Further, the ubiquitous nature of these exposures strip parents of their ability to protect their children as well as children’s autonomy over the decision to see these ads.

In the Kids’Cam study, we used wearable cameras and GPS devices to gain unprecedented access to children’s world over four days of their lives. We asked 168 children in New Zealand to be ‘junior researchers’ and wear these devices every waking hour. The children collected over 1.3 million images and 2.9 million GPS coordinates. With the help of the children, their parents and schools, Kids’Cam provided the first objective measure of children’s exposure to unhealthy commodities marketing across multiple settings and in multiple media. Our results show that unhealthy commodity marketing is a key modifiable influence on children and is a key area to improve children’s health.

Unhealthy commodities marketing
The top left image shows the wearable camera and the other images show examples of the marketing children were exposed to

What are governments doing about this?

The research on the poor effects of marketing on health is unequivocal. So how are governments dealing with this? In short, they aren’t. In most countries, marketing for individual unhealthy commodities is controlled by industry self-regulation which involves the industry setting, monitoring, and enforcing their own codes of conduct (with the notable exception of tobacco). Such systems have repeatedly demonstrated they are hopelessly ineffective at protecting children. Self-regulation also fails to acknowledge the fundamental conflict of interest that exists for the unhealthy commodities industry whose main obligation is to maximise shareholders’ profits independent of costs to public health.

One might think that regulating unhealthy commodities marketing might be fairly complex, given governments reluctance to deal with the problem. The policy recommendations for dealing with a wide range of commodities, such as junk food, alcohol, and gambling marketing, however, are remarkably similar and straightforward. For example, there are common recommendations on banning sports sponsorship by unhealthy commodities companies in recognition that sports stars are heroes to children and sports broadcasts frequently circumvent existing marketing codes.

So why is there reluctance to regulate these unhealthy products? One answer lies in the increasing interconnectedness and global nature of the unhealthy commodities which has created a critical mass of expertise in challenging meaningful health regulation. Research has demonstrated how individual products within the greater unhealthy commodities industry adopt the same tactics to disrupt, distort and deflect meaningful regulation. For example, tobacco, food and alcohol companies have produced public relation campaigns that stress the importance of individual accountability and information-based approaches to prevention, while simultaneously denying consumers access to accessible health information. A situation which stacks the odds heavily against policymakers and researchers attempting to protect public health and which ultimately leaves children vulnerable to the direct and indirect consequences of the unhealthy commodities industry.

Another barrier is researchers, policymakers, and government departments often work in silos on different unhealthy commodities which fractures the collective effort for better health and protecting children. As a result, when successful regulation is applied in one area (e.g. tobacco sports sponsorship), the process must continue or start for the next product despite the underlining context, health risks and conflicts of interest remaining the same. For example, the UK Government released a Green Paper exploring bans on junk food marketing by price and place, as well as before 9pm on television. However, marketing restrictions on alcohol or gambling are completely absent despite the report acknowledging the substantial harm caused by both products to adults and children.

What needs to change

Greater coordination between health partners is required to combat the collective and highly coordinated effort of the unhealthy commodities industry. One approach is the creation of new All-Party-Parliamentary Groups (APPG) to focus on the regulation of all unhealthy commodities rather than individual products to build public service capacity and streamline the evidence synthesis, policy recommendation, and policy processes. Alternatively,  New Zealand is currently modernising its public service via the implementation of a new Public Services Act, which will see the creation of interdepartmental executive boards compiled of heads from different agencies tasked with specific jobs like reducing child poverty or improving mental health. The UK could consider similar reforms to streamline the policy-making process in the so-term ‘fleet approach’ to government. An approach which may avoid the precarious situation created

Children are bombarded by the marketing of unhealthy commodities every day in a range of settings and via numerous marketing avenues, contributing to poor social, health, and financial outcomes. In general, the current system of marketing regulation for unhealthy commodities is inherently flawed. To protect children’s health and reduce the health and social burden of unhealthy commodities, we must implement an integrated services approach that is consistent across unhealthy products which acknowledges junk food, alcohol, gambling and tobacco products collectively for what they are, unhealthy commodities.

Dr Tim Chambers (@tchambersnz) is a research associate in the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Innovation at Imperial College Business School. 


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