December 11, 2019

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie

Regulating television advertising targeted toward children could be an effective way to reduce their exposure to unhealthy food products, according to a new study co-authored by Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Dr. Francesca Dillman Carpentier

Dr. Francesca Dillman Carpentier

The study, published in Public Health Nutrition, evaluates the effects of regulations implemented in Chile that aim to reduce childhood obesity by restricting child-targeted marketing of products high in sugars, calories, saturated fats and sodium. Taillie teamed up with Francesca R. Dillman Carpentier, PhD, W. Horace Carter Distinguished Professor at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and worked with university researchers in Chile to survey more than 1,500 families living in Santiago about preschool and adolescent television viewing.

Using those surveys, the researchers assessed hours and channels of television use and merged that information with an analysis of food advertising to estimate preschoolers’ and adolescents’ exposure to unhealthy food marketing. They found that after Chile’s regulations were put in place in 2016, children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising on popular broadcast and cable television decreased significantly but was not eliminated from their viewing.

Preschoolers’ exposure to child-targeted advertising of unhealthy foods decreased by 35%, while adolescents’ exposure fell by 52%. The researchers also found that decreases were more pronounced for children who watched more television. Once the regulations were implemented, the food ads that children were still most frequently exposed to were for products high in sugar.

“This work shows the importance of serious regulatory action to reduce unhealthy marketing to kids,” Taillie says. “However, we still don’t know how these regulations will affect children’s food preferences, what they eat or if this has any effect on health. We intend to study these outcomes as well as the effect of the full implementation of the law.”

In 2018, Chile implemented a second, broader marketing policy that banned TV advertisements of any junk foods exceeding nutritional thresholds from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., not just restricting child-targeted ads during children’s programs. This second policy is expected to eliminate the majority of children’s exposure to junk food advertising from television.

However, as Dillman Carpentier says, “Any policy is going to require periodic monitoring for compliance and effectiveness, given the amount of sugary food and beverage marketing that we found was still reaching children’s eyes. And that’s with one of the most comprehensive regulations targeting unhealthy food marketing to date.”

The advertising restrictions are among several steps Chile has taken to combat obesity. The country also has increased taxes on sugary drinks; implemented the first-ever mandatory national system of front-of-package warning labels on foods high in added sugar, sodium, saturated fat or calories; and forbids the sale of these products in schools.

Obesity is increasing rapidly worldwide, along with consumers’ intake of sugary drinks and energy-dense ultra-processed food. Food marketing has been identified as a contributing factor in childhood obesity, prompting the World Health Organization to recommend restricting child-directed marketing of energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods and beverages.

Many countries have enabled industry self-regulation of food marketing standards, but Chile has mandated some of the most stringent and comprehensive food marketing regulations and obesity-prevention strategies.

Dr. Barry Popkin

Dr. Barry Popkin

“This is one of the first studies to examine changes in children’s exposure to junk food advertising after a national, government-led policy implementation,” adds Barry Popkin, PhD, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of nutrition at the Gillings School. “It is an innovative paper and important in its own right as it shows what a truly comprehensive child marketing ban can do. We learn from this paper, however, that simply limiting child-directed strategies or marketing on children’s television is not enough: Children are still exposed to harmful junk food marketing on other channels or via non-child-directed strategies. More comprehensive regulations will be needed to see a meaningful change in children’s exposure to junk food marketing — and their diets.”

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