For too long television advertising has cast unhealthy foods in a starring role in children’s minds, whilst healthier options are pushed off-stage.
Who could forget Tony the Tiger telling children that sugar laden cornflakes are G-r-r-reat! Last week, with colleagues, I published a paper in the medical journal, PLOS medicine, showing how Boris Johnson’s proposal to rebalance food advertising by stopping the deluge of TV adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm could reduce the number of children with obesity by 40,000, yielding a health benefit of £7.4 billion.
The mechanism is simple but powerful: when children see these adverts, they tend to think about eating unhealthy food. Children then respond by eating more food and more calories. The flood of advertising has permeated all areas of our lives, over time shaping our buying habits, what we eat and ultimately influencing our health.
Stopping this advertising – effectively putting up flood barriers – prevents this happening. Our research also estimated advertising restrictions would have a two-fold greater impact in reducing obesity among children whose parents earn the least compared to those who earn the most.
So, Mr Johnson’s proposals – if implemented – would not only dramatically improve the nation’s health, but help ‘level-up’ health too. With all the recent concern about Covid-19, our important research findings largely went unnoticed. But whilst it is easy to forget about obesity, it would be a mistake.
First, as Mr Johnson knows well, obesity matters for Covid-19. People with obesity are at much higher risk of hospital admission (113 per cent higher), critical care admission (74 per cent higher) and mortality (48 per cent) from Covid-19. Those risks are very high and because obesity is so common that will mean a lot of hospital admissions and deaths from Covid-19 can be attributed to obesity.
If successive UK Governments had done more to tackle obesity, our hospitals and our critical care beds would not be filling up as quickly as they are. The failure to prevent obesity has cost lives during the pandemic. Full hospitals have also led to critical treatment being delayed, as well as costing the tax-payer money.
Second, obesity matters in the long run. Good health is the foundation for education, economic growth and prosperity. Our future economic growth will be tied to our nation’s health. Today’s children will be tomorrow’s workforce, and their health will be a deciding factor in future prosperity.
The UK is unusual compared to other developed countries in having a relatively high proportion of children. Those aged under 15 years make up 18 per cent of the population in the UK compared to 12 per cent in Japan and 14 per cent in Germany, for example.
This ‘country of children’ could provide a future demographic dividend – if they grow up healthy. But the current signs are not encouraging. At 28 per cent, childhood obesity in the UK is nearly as common as it is in the United States (29 per cent) and Mexico (29 per cent).
These numbers represent the tip of the iceberg – high levels of childhood obesity are the canary in the mine, a warning that many more children do not have the opportunities to be active and grow up healthy. The UK needs to act now.
Third, the north-south divide is not just about economics, it is about health too. Not all children have the same opportunities to grow-up healthy. Children from more deprived backgrounds watch more television – and more adverts for unhealthy food. They are two to three times more likely to have obesity.
As our work has highlighted, one of the reasons we need policies like the advertising restrictions is because they help create the conditions for everyone to be healthy regardless of where they live.
Mr Johnson, like many Conservatives, understands all this. His obesity strategy launched earlier this year promised bold new measures – banning unhealthy food advertising on TV and online, ending ‘buy one get one free deals’ on unhealthy foods, and adding calorie information to menus.