Protecting our children from unhealthy food advertising: Needs more than a pledge

Reality bites – Malaysia is the fattest country in Southeast Asia and ranked number six in the whole of Asia. The Consumers’ Association of Penang will support good measures proposed by the Government to curb the obesity epidemic. But good measures should be legally binding and enforceable, not based on pledges or promises which can be broken with no punitive measures.

Through the “Responsible Advertising to Children Pledge”, 10 major F&B companies have promised not to advertise via the broadcast and print media. The pledge was done in collaboration with the Health Ministry, Malaysian Advertisers Association and the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) Food Manufacturing group.

The pledge may seem like a good effort where our Health Ministry works together with corporations to protect children from irresponsible advertising. Based on the pledge, they agreed not to advertise to target young children (12 years old and below) unless their products adhere to the nutrition criteria based on scientific evidence or international dietary guidelines.

They have also committed not to engage in any publicity targeting schools, unless, they are invited by schools for educational purposes. This is a bad exception as health education in our schools should not be tainted with business and marketing interests of these companies. Food companies should be banned from our classrooms.

Education for healthy food choices must be conducted by more credible organizations – like the education department from the Ministry of Health.

In order to stop advertisements targeting children as prime consumers, we need more than just a pledge. The Government has to come out with strict laws to protect our children from exploitation by irresponsible advertisers.

Ban food adverts for children under 12

Sweden and Norway have banned advertising to children under 12 as they do not have the capacity to recognise advertisements or critically analyse them. In the United Kingdom, Greece, Denmark, and Belgium advertising to children is restricted.

In Malaysia, fast food advertisements are only banned on children’s TV programmes and fast food advertisers are not allowed to sponsor them. However it does not mean they do not watch TV programmes or advertisements during other times.

This is a small measure with limited impact. Vulnerable children under 12 should be protected from exploitation by advertisers. We should follow the example of Sweden and Norway to have a blanket ban on advertisements targeting children under 12. The ban should include advertisements in the newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, handouts and the online media.

Measures in schools

Since 1980s, CAP has been firm on its stand in calling for a ban on vending machines in schools. Junk food is also being sold in schools despite guidelines being established for healthy foods in our school canteens.  And junk food sellers are operating near the schools despite guidelines which bar them from these areas. We need stricter punitive measures to protect our children from consuming unhealthy foods in schools.

Parents should realise that younger children do not understand persuasive intent in advertising and tend to interpret commercials as accurate and truthful information. They are simply not aware that the content they are seeing are advertisements and cannot differentiate between programme and advertisement content at that tender age.

Common products targeted at children are sugary cereals, sweets, candy, junk foods and fast foods. Such advertising may contribute to lifetime poor nutritional habits. Teach them to eat home-cooked food, and to nurture a culture to take home-cooked foods to schools.

Children’s health or corporations’ wealth

We are what we eat. And children’s eating habits should not be molded by food companies. The future health of our nation depends on the food habits of our children now. We need to ban advertisements to children to protect them from unhealthy food choices provided by food companies.  Ultimately, the Government must decide whether they want to protect the health of our children or wealth for the corporations.

Letter to the Editor, 26 August 2013