Blog: Ben CooperA bad fortnight for self-regulation

Ben Cooper | 23 June 2017

Recent events in Canada, Brussels and the UK suggest the task of defending self-regulation as the best way to prevent the commercial activities by food companies from exacerbating childhood obesity is not getting any easier.

Regulation put out to consultation by the Canadian government last week sets a higher age threshold – 17 years of age – than legislation or voluntary measures tend to in most countries. Furthermore, the consultation not only relates to TV, online and print advertising but also includes product labelling, in-store merchandising and sports sponsorship.

The rhetoric from the Canadian government suggests those seeking to soften the scope of potential legislation will need to be on their game. When launching the consultation at the Dietitians of Canada national conference, Health Minister Jane Philpott spoke of the “pervasive” nature of marketing to children. The Canadian government may have ordered a consultation but it is an advocate of tighter control.

Public health bodies and campaigners want national legislation to follow the example of Quebec which has had tighter controls of advertising food to children for nearly 40 years though only covering children aged 13 and under.

Drawing on what happens in other legislatures can often have a bearing on polarised policy debates, offering precedents to follow, if deemed successful, or avoid if not. The clearest example in recent years is the huge interest internationally in Mexico’s taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks and calorie-dense foods.

As Canada ponders the imposition of nationwide regulations, the regulatory landscape on food marketing appears to be fragmenting in the UK. The devolved Scottish government wants to take a tougher approach than measures introduced in England last August and its resolve to do so will have been strengthened on Monday (19 June) by the publication of a report from the University of Stirling, supporting tighter restrictions on how foods are promoted in-store and the taxation of less healthy food products, among other measures.

Moves towards tighter regulation also appear to be ramping up at EU level, with the EU Council adopting proposals last Friday (16 June) by the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) aimed at addressing childhood obesity, which included urging EU governments to reduce advertising and sponsorship of less healthy foods targeted at children and adolescents.

The EPSCO proposals are wide-ranging and extend well beyond the marketing of food to children, which will be welcomed by industry advocates. However, they also speak to the growing pressure to augment or replace self-regulation of areas such as advertising and promotion with regulatory action. That pressure will not dissipate – nor will the task of advocating self-regulation become any easier – until discernible progress is seen in reducing childhood obesity in the many countries where it is recognised as a serious and urgent health issue.

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