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Article: French public health body calls for tighter regulation of unhealthy food adverts

30 June 2020

The French public health body Santé Publique France is calling for stricter food marketing regulation after it found over half of TV adverts seen by children and teenagers concern processed foods high in fats, sugar and salt.

The results of the survey by Santé Publique France published on June 24th show that half of adverts for unhealthy food on French television are broadcast between 7 and 10 pm, the time slot most-watched by children aged 4-12 years and teenagers aged 13-17.

The public body says there should be stricter regulation of foods with the lowest nutritional value, rated D or E according to the French-led label Nutri-Score. While the advertisement of unhealthy foods is already banned between children's shows, the research reveals that in reality these programmes represent just 0.5% of TV viewing time for under 18s.

"These results support the restriction of food marketing for products of poor nutritional value, especially on television, at times when the greatest number of children and adolescents are watching," the report says.

Santé Publique France said the international public health community was in agreement: adverts for unhealthy food help create an obesogenic environment and therefore play a significant role in the global obesity epidemic.

Advertising obesity

In 2018, food advertising across all media amounted to a net investment of €1.1bn in France and made up 9.3% of the year's total advertising.

Santé Publique France found that of this investment in food and drink advertisement, 48% was for products with a poor Nutri-Score rating of D or E. It calculated that these products featured in 53.3% of food adverts seen by children, 52.5% seen by teenagers and 50.8% seen by adults in 2018.

Following the publication of the report, the NGO FoodWatch France launched a petition urging the ministers of agriculture and food, culture, and health and solidarity as well as three MPs in charge of a draft audiovisual law to commit to banning all forms of advertising and promotions targeting under 16s with unhealthy food and drink.

The petition, which has garnered over 31,000 signatures in less than a week, states: "Until now, France has relied mainly on voluntary commitments from the food industry to limit children's exposure. However, as consumers, parents or grown-up children, we are very concerned to note that manufacturers continue to target children to sell their products of little nutritional value and indeed to innovate in this area. These practices range from the labelling and promotion of their products to the development of games, sponsorship and product placement (sometimes using young youtubers)."

Online adverts still off the radar

Santé Publique France said its results may well be an underestimation since they could not take into account young people's increasing exposure to marketing on the internet. It says teenagers now spend an average of two hours a day online compared to 1h12 watching television. Meanwhile, although TV remains the dominant medium for advertisers, investment is steadily switching to online marketing channels.

"Although it is not yet possible to measure this [online] exposure, it seems just as necessary to regulate it," said the report.

Putting your law where your mouth is

In 2015, 17% of children aged 6-17 were overweight in France, 4% of whom were obese. Emmanuel Macron's government has already outlined its intention to use early age prevention and the Nutri-Score system as key tools in efforts to curb obesity prevalence by 2023. Yet his government's stance on marketing regulation has been less clear cut.

Last year his rivals, the left-wing party La France Insoumise, attempted to pass a law entitled " Bill to protect the population from the dangers of junk food". Article 3 of this proposal sought to ban all radio, TV and internet advertising and promotional activities for food and drinks seemingly intended for children and teenagers. However, the bill hit a wall of objections from Macron's centralist majority party La République en Marche. Instead, it made it through under the new title of " Bill to improve the nutritional quality of food and encourage good eating practices" with significant amendments to its contents. Notably, article 3 was deleted and replaced instead with the requirement that adverts broadcast from and received in the French territory on the internet, television and radio will have to include Nutri-Score information. However, the article also contains lengthly details of how advertisers can be exempted from this obligation if they pay a contribution to the National Public Health Agency.

These requirements will come into force in January 2021.

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