Research shows that children are more influenced by advertising than adults, so any restrictions on advertising for children will have a disproportionately positive effect. That’s just one reason why new rules on advertising food high in fat, salt and sugar are to be welcomed.
There have been two recent headline grabbers which sum up where Scotland is with childhood obesity. The first was a report that more than one in ten children in Scotland have started primary school overweight or obese since 2005. Tellingly the study was by Cancer Research UK, because obesity is a factor in many cancers. As part of their response to that report, the Scottish Government said it encouraged people to be more active as well as to eat less and eat better.
Then came a report that Scotland was ranked joint worst for inactivity among children, and for the time children spend in front of screens, in a study across 38 countries.
Since 1998, the proportion of children in Scotland aged two-15 at risk of being overweight (including obesity) has fluctuated between 29 per cent and 33 per cent, and was 28 per cent in 2015. The Scottish Government says that the two major lifestyle factors associated with the growth of obesity are physical inactivity and poor diet.
So of course it is right to try to improve the diet of children and these new regulations for advertising to the under-16s should help. And we are in a place now where we should do anything that might help, even if the action taken will not in itself turn the tide. But there are questions around these new regulations.
The first is over the fact they ban ads that directly or indirectly promote unhealthy food from appearing in children’s media or other media where children make up more than 25 per cent of the audience.
That rule currently exists for broadcast advertising and has come in for criticism, because it means shows that are very popular with families –like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent – are not covered and get fast-food ads.
The same difficulty will arise with some online activity which attracts huge numbers of people and therefore a large number of children, but it may not be over the 25 per cent of total audience figure.
For broadcast advertising the answer should be a very straightforward ban on all unhealthy food advertising before the watershed. If we use the watershed to protect children from other unhealthy influences like sex and bad language why on earth do we not use it for the greatest threat to their health? But this has greater online difficulties.
But diet is just one of the complex factors around obesity in children which include increased sedentary behaviour in front of screens, and the snacking that goes along with that, the perception of safe outdoor playing both in terms of safe environments and also parents with over-heightened fears of assaults, and physical education in schools.
All of these areas need to be tackled, but that does not mean that we have to proceed only when all the elements are in place. Every step taken will help, literally and metaphorically.