By Beth Carney Londoner Nancy Hayden-Smith, a full-time mother of four, knows the power of advertising. Although she strictly limits her family's visits to fast-food restaurants, her children still pick up on media signals. "My son was just saying on the bus over here, 'Oh, Mummy, I like McDonalds'" says Hayden-Smith, out shopping with her 4-year-old at a city mall. "There must have been an advertisement at the bus stop."
Hayden-Smith may soon get something she and many other British parents have been wishing for: stricter regulation of junk-food advertising. The British government has given the food industry two years to put in place a voluntary code restricting advertising of unhealthy food to children -- or face legislative action. And European Union Commissioner for Health & Consumer Affairs Markos Kyprianou said in January that if he didn't see progress from the industry in a year, the EU may crack down, too. "There's a growing realization that obesity is a European problem now. It's not just an American problem," says Philip Tod, the EC's spokesman for health and consumer protection.
As in the U.S., the increase in overweight children provokes special concern. Of the 77 million children in European Union in 2003, 14 million were overweight, according to the London-based International Task Force on Obesity. The severity of the problem varies from country to country. In the Netherlands, a relatively low 12% of children aged 7 to 11 were overweight, while it's a far more worrisome 27% in Britain and 36% in Italy. What most alarms health professionals and parents is that the number of overweight children is growing fast, according to the ITFO's statistics, by about 400,000 a year.
EAT YOUR GREEN. Armed with such statistics, governments across Europe have launched initiatives ranging from improving nutrition in schools to promoting exercise. One of the key areas of focus has been food ads and labeling, which in many European countries has been subject to looser regulation than in the U.S. In France, a law passed last summer that bans vending machines in schools also requires snack makers to include health warnings in ads, or pay a tax. As of Jan. 1, Ireland, too, required TV ads for candy and fast food to include a warning: "Snacking on sugary foods is unhealthy."
In March, the EC plans to launch a "platform" on diet, physical activity, and health during which industry, health, and consumer groups will convene to come up with new guidelines on appropriate food-marketing practices to children and new food-labeling rules, Tod says. If the results of that process aren't satisfactory, the commission will initiate legislation.
The British government has started a similar process. Last fall, the government announced that OfCom, which regulates the nation's media, will consult with industry this year to come up with proposals to tighten the rules on promoting food that's high in sugar, salt, and fat to children. If self-regulation doesn't produce change by early 2007, the government warned that it would implement its own framework.
In addition, Britain's Food Standards Authority is devising a new system of labeling food according to its nutritional content that will be put in place by next year. Under the current proposal, food would tagged with a red, green, or yellow light, depending on nutritional content.
BAN ADS? Health officials, however, say they're encouraged by the food industry's cooperation so far. Indeed, makers of candy, snacks, and fast food globally have been modifying advertising and products in order to appeal to health-conscious consumers.
Examples: Last spring, McDonald's (MCD) introduced a menu in Europe featuring salads, fruit, and the option of substituting carrots for French fires in Happy Meals, while candy maker Cadbury Schweppes says it has called a worldwide halt to ads aimed at kids under eight. Kraft Foods (KFT) announced in January that it will no longer advertise certain products, such as Oreos and Kool Aid, to children under the age 12.
Still, sharp divisions exist in Europe over how far regulation should go, notes Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London. In Britain -- where, according to an OfCom report, food companies spent $1.4 billion on advertising in 2003 -- about 125 organizations, including consumer, parenting, and medical groups, have signed on to a campaign calling for a complete ban on all marketing of unhealthy food to children.
"A voluntary code means that companies are not penalized if they don't follow the spirit of the code," says Charlie Powell, campaign leader of the food-issues group Sustain, which is lobbying for the complete ad ban. "The food industry is hugely competitive. It's unrealistic to believe the industry as a whole will be able to act with one will."
HELPLESS PARENTS. The food industry insists that sugary or high-fat treats can be part of a well-balanced diet and maintains that government strategy should also focus on increasing physical activity. Industry groups insist that advertising doesn't cause obesity. "We know that just banning or restricting ads or changing the nature of the advertising message isn't going to result in children getting thinner, nor is it going to result even in children's food preferences changing," says Ian Twinn, director of public affairs the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, an industry group representing companies that advertise.
Convincing parents that ads don't affect children's food preferences, however, may be an uphill battle. In a survey of British parents by the nation's Consumer Assn., nearly three-quarters of respondents believed that advertising makes it difficult for parents to persuade children to eat healthy food.
But Gerard Hastings, director of the Centre for Social Marketing at the University of Stirling and the Open University, who has researched food and tobacco advertising, says the threat of legal action if voluntary codes don't work has industry's attention. "The European Commission and the British government have essentially read the riot act and said, 'Put your house in order,'" he says. If they don't clean up their houses on their own, the companies know they'll soon get help. Carney is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in London