Tuesday

22nd Oct 2019

Analysis

Audiovisual bill falls short in battle against childhood obesity

  • One in three children in Europe between the ages of six and nine are already overweight or obese; four in five of these children will grow up to be overweight or obese adults. (Photo: iStock)

Health campaigners had high expectations for the Audio Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) to protect children and limit their exposure from marketing of food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). What they got instead was watered down legislation that still heavily relies on industry to regulate itself.

The AVMSD governs the EU-wide coordination of national legislation on all audiovisual media – both traditional TV broadcasts and on-demand services – covering television advertising and shopping, sponsorship and product placement.

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  • By age seven, the average child has already spent a full year's time in front of a screen.

Research has shown that it is easy to influence children’s preferences or choices through marketing – especially online, away from the watchful eyes of parents and where it falls outside industry-written rules that attempt to reduce exposure to unhealthy products, such as junk food and sugary drinks.

Children spend less time in school than they do in front of a television, tablet or smartphone. By the age of seven, the average child will have already spent a full year’s time glued to a screen; by the time they reach age 18 that time has increased to four years.

Initial proposals for the directive by the European Commission were far from perfect in the eyes of health campaigners, but in an agreed text published by the European Parliaments’ Committee on Culture and Education (Cult) published last Friday (12 May) – the sections relating to food were further stripped down.

Governance failure

Gone are the references to the nutrient profiles the World Health Organisation (WHO) uses to define HFSS. The self-regulatory regimes that the directive leans on continue to use much looser guidelines created by industry, which, for example, do not consider many sugary breakfast cereals as HFSS.

The rules for product placement have also been “completely liberalised”, according to campaigners.

The communications covered by the directive in relation to food and drink advertising only affect “children’s programmes” rather than “programmes with a significant children’s audience”.

It is a critical change, keeping the door open for companies to market unhealthy food and fizzy drinks during prime-time TV shows that are hugely popular with children.

“It’s a very bad revision … full of loopholes,” said one campaigner who chose to remain anonymous, as he told EUobserver that health organisations had been “totally ignored” by the Cult committee’s rapporteurs.

“They refused to talk to us.”

Others told of a similar story. “Our starting position was pretty radical,” admitted Nikolai Pushkarev, policy coordinator at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), “but what we’ve ended up with is a governance failure.”

But it’s not just campaigners that have seemingly been ignored. Members of the European Parliament's committee on environment, public health and food safety voted in favour of no HFSS adverts in programmes “aimed at children or programmes shown during hours of peak viewing times by children’s audiences”.

Wojciech Kalamarz from the European Commission's health department, DG Sante, told EUobserver that the original commission proposal has clearly been watered down and has no idea why. “I understand there are different interests,” he added.

Industry’s fingerprints

Critics of the new legislation have cited fierce industry lobbying and conflicts of interest as major issues.

A source close to the co-rapporteurs for the AVMSD, Sabine Verheyen and Petra Kammerevert, told EUobserver that food representatives had not been given an audience by the committee, blaming it on “structure” because of having to coordinate the schedules for two rapporteurs (usually there is only one) has been complicated.

However, Verheyen and Kammerevert, reportedly both have links to the industry and received thousands of euros a month for more than half a decade from German public broadcaster Westdeutsche Rundfunk Koeln.

Leaked emails from Coca-Cola late last year showed the company’s strategy to defeat fizzy drink taxes and advertising restrictions at local, state, national, and international levels, by influencing public bodies, including the WHO, and working with “coalition partners”.

“Self-regulation (EU Pledge) by industry can positively influence public policy setting in the EU, which in turn helps to frame the debate at country level,” reads one leaked email.

The Cult committee’s text – and even that of the original text set out by the commission – have industry’s fingerprints all over it.

“Member states should be encouraged to ensure that self-regulation and co-regulation, including codes of conduct, effectively contribute to the objective of the reduction of the exposure of children to audiovisual commercial communications regarding foods and beverages that are high in salt, sugars or fat, or that otherwise do not fit national or international nutritional guidelines,” states the document.

The document’s wording gives plenty of wriggle room to member states that do not want to change anything. For those that want to take action, the onus is on self- or co-regulation.

Research just published by the University of Hamburg suggests that more than 60 percent of all food-related websites contain elements designed to encourage children to eat HFSS foods.

The lure of confectionery was particularly significant in social media, they found, which is an area the AVMSD touches on but does not cover extensively.

The research is another entry on a growing list of studies that question whether the industry can be trusted to police itself.

In Scotland, for example, nearly three quarters of the advertising seen by children is for junk food.

Lead researcher Georgina Cairns from the University of Stirling, Scotland, found that the “investment and expertise amongst manufacturers is skewed towards HFSS brands”.

The WHO has also sounded the alarm. “We consistently find that children are exposed to countless numbers of hidden digital marketing techniques promoting foods high in fat, sugar and salt,” said the organisation’s regional director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab, recently.

Jakab argued that it is the responsibility of policy-makers to recognise the “new threat” presented by digital marketing of food to children and to act swiftly.

In some countries, like the UK, codes of conduct are being revised to take into account the changes in how children consume media. They argue that these industry-led initiatives are working.

EU Pledge

The EU Pledge is the flagship agreement for industry giants, such as Coca-Cola, Mondelez, McDonald’s, Nestle and Kellogg’s, “to change the way they advertise to children”. It is a voluntary initiative by leading food and beverage companies.

The latest EU Pledge monitoring report suggests that 98.7 percent of TV advertising spots – used by pledge members – were compliant with their commitments under the agreement.

There was also a 48 percent reduction in children’s exposure to advertising that does not meet nutrition criteria and will be expanded to cover nearly all media.

However, the nutrition criteria are nowhere near as strict as those presented by the WHO.

Breakfast cereals, under the initiative, for example, can have up to 30 grams of sugar per 100 grams under the EU Pledge, whereas the WHO puts the limit at 15 grams. For yoghurts, it’s 13.5 grams versus 10 grams.

Consumer group BEUC recently launched a campaign to push manufacturers to up their game and tighten these “exceptionally weak” criteria.

The pledge is not the only show in town either; many different schemes are also in place at national level.

But are these schemes any good? An implementation report on the AVMSD suggests they're not.

It revealed that most EU member states neither updated the current codes of conduct, nor developed new ones. Although it did not name them, the report also indicated that there are still a number of countries where no adequate measures are in place to curb the exposure to HFSS marketing.

Supporters of the latest Cult committee AVMSD text point to plans to share best practices on self- and co-regulation across the EU.

A source told EUobserver that the document is not as light a touch as some groups are making out. The source also warned that the directive should not be used as a reflex to kick the likes of Facebook just because the media spotlight is on them.

“We have to protect children [but] we can’t say goodbye to freedom of communication,” he explained, adding: “We don’t want to control the internet.”

The committee has also inserted the need for a report within four years of the directive coming into force. If, by then, the approach has still not delivered the “expected results in minimising the exposure of children and minors to such audiovisual communications” the EU commission will propose more regulation.

Recent comments made by the EU health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, suggest that he isn’t afraid to use the stick if the carrot isn’t working.

But campaigners, medical experts and an increasing number of academics have all warned that Europe cannot afford to wait that long.

One in three children in Europe between the ages of six and nine are already overweight or obese; four in five of these children grow up to be overweight or obese adults, according to multiple studies. This places a heavy burden on health systems.

“We’re still spending a disappointingly small amount of effort on something that’s a massive economic problem,” said Richard Dobbs, co-author of McKinsey’s seminal report – Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis.

But, of course, advertising restrictions are just one of 50 levers that need to be pulled in order to tackle obesity effectively, Dobbs explained in an interview with EUobserver - due to be published for European Obesity Day on 20 May.

As far as this particular lever on advertising goes, there is plenty of horse-trading still to be done, according to the Advertising Standards Authority in London. There were more than 1,400 amendments tabled by the committee.

There’s a chance that the Council of the EU, where representatives of member states sit, will strengthen the proposals back towards the commission’s original approach.

Health campaigners readily admit that there’s little chance for the strict regulations they’d hoped for. “It’s been a wake up call for us to be more engaging,” admitted EPHA’s Pushkarev.

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