A Reflection on European Regulation of Television Advertising to Children

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The ills and benefits of food advertising to children has emerged as one of the hot and upcoming topics in European media and social policy. Writing in this issue of Communication Research Trends, Schwartz, Kunkel, and DeLucia state that the link between the amount of time children spend watching television and the likelihood of their being overweight has been well established; they also note recent research that has shown that this may result from overall exposure to food marketing, rather than mere lack of physical activity, as they watch television instead of taking part in sports or outdoor activities. Since food marketing appears not only on television but also on other off- and online media, they suggest the need for policies to protect children from what seems to be a clear threat to their present and future health. The authors have looked into the U.S. case. I would argue that the need for child protection from food advertising is relevant in all European countries; here, too, child obesity has increased, as identified by the World Health organization (Livingstone, 2001). In this essay I will reflect on the main area--watching food advertising and food choice--from a regulatory point of view, and in particular, in the European Union (EU).

A. Childhood obesity and advertising concerns at the wider European region level

The World Health organization (WHO) recognizes obesity as a global health problem, from which European countries are not spared. To facilitate action across the WHO European Region, WHO/Europe organized the WHO European Ministerial Conference on Counteracting obesity in Istanbul, Turkey on 15-17 November 2006. At the conference, the delegates and Ministers adopted the European Charter on Counteracting obesity (WHO, 2006). Among other agreements, the charter recommended that policies to counteract obesity should also became part of the WHO European health policy for the next years-- Health 2020--currently being developed by WHO/Europe in collaboration with its 53 Member States (WHO, 2012). Their shared goals are to "significantly improve the health and well-being of populations, reduce health inequalities, strengthen public health, and ensure people-centered health systems that are universal, equitable, sustainable, and of high quality" (WHO, 2012, p. 1). The WHO set up an ongoing initiative for child obesity in the European region, the European Childhood obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) (WHO/Europe, 2005). The first data were collected in 2007 and the initiative includes routinely trend measuring in overweight and obesity in primary school children (6-9 years), in order to understand the progress of the epidemic in this population group and to permit inter-country comparisons within the European region. 2010 results indicate that 24% of 6-9 year olds are overweight or obese (based on the 2007 WHO growth reference for children and adolescents).

According to Livingstone (2001) obesity is now a major public health problem in Europe. Future research should aim to better understand the causes of the observed differences in the prevalence of obesity across Europe. At a population level this will mean focusing not just on the mechanisms of energy intake and physical activity but also on an evaluation of the environmental forces which, directly or indirectly, are conducive to high levels of overweight and obesity.

Schwartz, Kunkel, and DeLucia posit that the more pernicious effect of children's exposure to food marketing messages results from marketing's role in fueling the obesity epidemic. Advertising and the commercial world's interaction with children has long been a focus of attention from parents, regulators, and the industry, and it is emerging as a topic of research interest in academia. In Europe in particular, Young (2003) reviewed the literature on the role of advertising in children's food choice. He spotted nine main areas in the literature of both academic and public concern. …