Kicking Our Junk Habit: Do Bans and Regulations Really Make us Eat Healthier?

Public health is a tricky field for campaigners: it’s considerably less glamorous than a lot of other causes. Policy responses seem to favour the approach of throwing ideas at the wall, hoping something will stick. People remain awfully resistant to being told what to eat, and governments remain reluctant to take a stand against the food industry’s interests. Still, ideas on how to solve the health crisis keep popping up on our Facebook feeds.

One recent attempt is the petition to ban junk food TV adverts before 9pm. This initiative has been circulating in several incarnations. Earlier this year, the same proposal was delivered to 10 Downing Street by The Children’s Food Campaign and the British Heart Foundation, with over 30,000 signatures. Yet – no luck. Similarly, Jamie Oliver’s petition to introduce the sugary drinks tax, despite gaining over 145,000 signatures, was also recently rejected by the government. Neither initiative has been passed around social media without controversy. Many people question whether regulations and taxes like these actually work to combat the consequences of a poor diet.

A lot of parents seem to think so – 60% of the parents polled by the British Heart Foundation think stopping children being exposed to junk food adverts could help towards tackling the obesity crisis in children. 69% of parents polled feel the UK Government should introduce stricter regulations on junk food advertising to children. The suggestion also finds some backup in research, as several studies have confirmed that children are especially susceptible to the effects of advertising and that their food preferences may very well be influenced by TV advertising. However, this neglects the biggest influence on children’s diets – their parents. However mouth-watering the adverts make that bag of crisps look, most children are not the ones going out in the supermarkets to buy them.

Around 30% of children in the UK are estimated to be overweight or obese. The potential consequences are as numerous as they are devastating, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. This is not news for most people. What policymakers and campaigners alike sometimes seem to forget is that public health is not just a matter of individuals choosing chocolate bars instead of apples, but a complex issue that intersects with other social problems. Chief among them is economic inequality – child obesity is strongly linked to deprivation. It’s not so much about the choices we make as the choices we don’t have. A TV advert ban is unlikely to have much effect on these root causes of health inequality.

The sugar tax also fails to recognise this problem. Without a more holistic approach to promote healthier eating – including making sure that healthier products, like fruits and vegetable, become more affordable and accessible – it’s possible that these kinds of piecemeal efforts, such as the sugar tax, would only hurt poorer families.

Public health remains a matter of ideology. Calls for increased regulations around junk food are often met with a groaning reluctance and complaints about ‘the nanny state’. So called fat and sugar taxes leave a foul taste in many mouths, especially George Osborne’s.

However, this is not the case in many countries around the world. Sugar taxes have been employed in countries such as Finland, Norway, France and Mexico. The success rate of these measures remains somewhat unclear as substantial evaluation has yet to be carried out, but there is some evidence that especially sales of soft drinks tend to decrease as a result of these taxes. However, the sugar tax is sometimes only haphazardly implemented, as in the case of Finland, where mineral water is covered by the tax, but not biscuits. As most of these policies are quite recent, it will take a while before we know the full health impact of sugar taxes.

We’re still throwing things at the wall. Public health campaigners face not only the gargantuan food industry that wants nothing more than to exploit the deep-rooted emotional connection most of us have with our dietary habits, but also the ridiculous complexity of answering the questions of what will actually make us live healthier lifestyles. There’s a lot of factors that go into us reaching for that bag of crisps. Maybe we’ll just have to keep trying.

[Annina Claesson]

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