Scotland’s former health secretary has condemned celebrity and social media “influencer” endorsements of rapid weight loss products as damaging to young women’s mental health and wellbeing.
Shona Robison has called for a crackdown on false advertising through social media by the Advertising Standards Authority and suggested MSPs compile a database of breaches of current regulations.
The Dundee SNP MSP, who is raising a debate on the issue in Holyrood tomorrow, said the promotion of such weight loss products can have a “significantly damaging effect” on the mental health of young people.
She said: “There’s a lot of pressure, particularly on social media, where these products are pushed at a young age group by celebrities, especially those from reality TV.
“Right now I know that teenage girls are taking a vinegar which claims to convert fat into muscle and there are many other products like that making spurious claims for rapid weight loss. The claims for this vinegar are just not credible, but when you’re 14 or 15 you think it must do what it says, especially if a reality TV star is saying it’s great on their social media feed.”
She added: “The UK government is solely in charge of advertising regulations and I have met with the Advertising Standards Authority and they are interested in doing more in this area. I want people to send examples of this kind of celebrity endorsement to their MSP so we can highlight this to the ASA.
“The Scottish Government is also looking to do more around guidelines in public health and in terms of mental health. But it’s quite hard for public health bodies to combat social media - so there’s a role for strengthened regulation to stop spurious claims being made.”
Ms Robison also backed a petition, launched by Mandy Jones of the Glasgow-based Empowered Woman Project which highlights the dangers of advertising products that encourage rapid weight loss.
Ms Jones launched her petition after seeing an endorsement for “skinny coffee” by Holly Hagan from Geordie Shore and she hopes it will be a catalyst for change.
“This is a massive societal and cultural issue and something which has to change - now,” she said. “These ads from celebrities and influencers promoting rapid weight loss brands affect the mental health of young women. It’s no exaggeration that adverts like this are perpetuating and even causing a rise in eating disorders.
“I think that there should be standards enforced and regulations adhered to which better police these advertisements which often have photos which look like they’ve been taken minutes apart.”
One Instagram influencer, ex-model Lucinda Evelyn, has already stopped promoting weight-loss products. The singer from Glasgow has said the products she was asked to endorse would have word “skinny” in the title.
She has said she realised “it’s almost sort of selling anorexia and eating disorders and mental health problems. It was false advertising and it was just selling people insecurity and I didn’t really agree with that so I decided to take a step back from those kinds of products.”
The ASA said it had already banned a number of diet product adverts, including a “flat tummy tea” which was being promoted by Geordie Shore’s Sophie Kasaei on Instagram. A YouTube advert for XLS Medical was also banned on “grounds of social irresponsibility because the models appeared slim and the one who said she wouldn’t fit in her clothes appeared slim and healthy.”
A spokesperson stressed that it could only act if complaints were lodged but that social media influencers and celebrities had to adhere to its regulations on not misleading about the effectiveness of a product and that there must be evidence to substantiate any claims that were being made.
Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson Monica Lennon supported Ms Robison’s call for the ASA to do more. She said: “The industry built around celebrity-endorsed weight loss products exploits the trust and admiration that many young people have for their heroes.
“With little information known about the ingredients of these so-called diet products or their side effects, they pose serious health risks.
“This unethical practice should be investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority urgently and social media companies should stop advertising these potentially harmful products.”
Ms Robison added: “I’m concerned as a mum of a teenage daughter, and I know as a woman on social media that we get pushed these products all the time.
“It seems to be the case that quite often the before and after photos in these claims are taken within half an hour of each other, done on the same photo shoot, giving a completely inaccurate portrayal of healthy weight loss as a result of using a product. This should be a concern for us all because of the pressure it puts on young women and teenage girls to looking a certain way and the negative impact that has on their confidence and self esteem. In some cases that can damage women throughout their lives.
“We also need to get celebrities to say no to advertising these products - this is a choice for them. They are in such a huge position of influence.”