Government must tackle on-pack junk food marketing to children

Author: Louise Prime
Government must tackle on-pack junk food marketing to children

Paediatricians and child health campaigners are urging the government to tackle urgently manufacturers’ “manipulative” use of appealing cartoon characters on the packaging of junk foods that are so high in fat, sugar or salt that they can’t be advertised to children on broadcast or online media. They want food packaging legislation to be tightened to end such “irresponsible and exploitative” marketing techniques, and help children and parents make healthier food choices.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is backing Action on Sugar’s demand that the government bans on-pack cartoon animations that market unhealthy products to children; Action on Sugar is also calling on the government to mandate “traffic light” nutrition labelling.

Action on Sugar’s latest survey has found that more than half (51%) of 526 food and drink products that use cartoon animations on pack to appeal to children are “unnecessarily high in fat, saturated fat, sugar and/or salt” and it accuses manufacturers and retailers of “deliberately manipulating children and parents into purchasing ‘dangerously’ unhealthy products, which can encourage pester power and excessive consumption”.

It reported that 21% of products used licensed characters often well recognised by young children, such as Disney, Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol. More than a third (34%) of the 94 products surveyed that used such licensed characters had a red label for either fat, saturated fat, sugars and/or salt, classifying them as being unhealthy; and more than half of products (57%) with Paw Patrol and 50% of those with Peppa Pig imagery were high in fat, salt and/or sugar. However, it found a few cases where licensed characters were used responsibly to promote water, fruit or vegetables, and for lower-sugar variants of products.

Action on Sugar also reported that of the 434 products that use brand mascots and characters appealing to children, 53% would receive a red warning label on pack for sugar. It revealed that only 18 healthy food and drink products (such as fruit, vegetables and water) used on-pack child friendly animations – and said Lidl was “the best retailer in that respect”, with its Oaklands range of fruit and vegetables.

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chair of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, warned: “Many of the food products exposed in our survey present a serious risk to the future health and wellbeing of children. High sugar products increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, various cancers and tooth decay and high salt products put up blood pressure, which leads to cardiovascular disease later in life. The government needs to restrict the use of such packaging on unhealthy products including marketing them to children.”

RCPCH pointed out that using cartoon characters on food packaging makes products highly attractive to children and increases the likelihood that children will pester their parents to buy them. The College’s officer for health improvement Dr Max Davie said: “With so many of these products being unsuitable for children because of high fat, salt or sugar content, it is irresponsible and exploitative of companies to use such manipulative marketing techniques.

“Over half of the products investigated would not be eligible for broadcast or online advertising because of their ingredients, which makes a mockery of current food packaging rules. We urge the government to recognise this discrepancy and take immediate steps to tighten up food packaging legislation in order to help children and families make healthier food choices.”