Let’s put the health of children over industry profits

06 June 2019 | Health policy

Melanie Purnode, our Senior Press and Content Manager, shares her thoughts on the problems of advertising that promotes unhealthy products, from cigarettes in the 40s to junk food for children in the present day. 

What are your thoughts on old cigarette adverts from the 1940s? Mine are always ones of shock and complete disbelief that trusted, authoritative figures, like doctors, were allowed to be used in order to entice people to smoke a product that kills up to half of its users.

Action on Sugar, Action on Salt and Children’s Food campaign calling for a ban on the use of cartoon characters to advertise unhealthy products to children really hit home this week and brought back memories of my time working on anti-tobacco campaigns.

Thankfully, we have come a long way when it comes to cigarette advertising. But why then are trusted household cartoon characters allowed to be slapped on the front of junk food packaging? Ultimately, it’s the same advertising tactics that are being used 70 years later – the only difference is that this time it’s our children that are their target.

Since becoming a mum I’ve become even more passionate about my work at World Cancer Research Fund, which includes trying to reduce how much junk food our children eat. My toddler is too young to pester me to buy food with cartoon characters on them, but I know it’s only a matter of months before she does. It’s hard enough to get kids to eat healthily without friendly characters staring out of the front of cupcakes.

What’s worse is that, unlike with the cigarette adverts that were used when many of the smoking health hazards were still being hidden, these junk food adverts are being used at a time when we know that being overweight or obese is a cause of cancer. In fact, it increases your risk of a number of different life-threatening conditions and being obese doubles the risk of dying prematurely. When it comes to the younger generation, nearly a third of two to 15-year-olds are overweight or obese in the UK. This trend isn’t getting any better with younger generations becoming obese younger and staying obese for longer.

With the facts being so clear, why are we as a society not putting the health of our children above industry profits? Or is it that we still live in a world where we think Mad Men style advertising is acceptable?

The food and beverage industry need to start taking more responsibility for the way that they market their unhealthy products to children. But so too do the children’s entertainment industry who are using the love and trust that children, and sometimes parents, have in their characters to influence them into eating and drinking junk food.

Most people are astounded that cigarettes were marketed with a doctor’s endorsement in the 1940s. Our kids will look back and be amazed that we allowed the food industry to entice them into eating unhealthy products by using much-loved cartoon characters.

We’ve made some great steps towards tackling childhood obesity, such as last year’s introduction of a sugar tax on sugary drinks. As a parent I think we also have a role to play in calling out industry and saying enough, enough of influencing our children, enough of encouraging unhealthy habits that could have a life-threatening effect on their health. It’s time we banned the use of these children’s characters on the packaging of unhealthy food and drink.

Take to social media and add your voice to banning #junkfoodads @wcrf_uk.

Melanie Purnode | 06 June 2019