Cartoon characters that are used to promote unhealthy foods to kids could be a thing of the past, if a group of MPs gets its way.
The health and social care select committee wants to see characters like Tony the Tiger and the Milky Bar Kid banned in a bid to crack down on childhood obesity — which has reached epidemic proportions in the UK.
However, characters that promote healthy foods, like the sweetcorn-loving Jolly Green Giant, would be allowed to stick around, according to the committee's report.
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It comes after an alarming analysis revealed this month that 1 in 25 children aged 10 or 11 in England are now “severely obese”. Meanwhile, a third of British children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.
And the committee was quick to point out that this is an issue directly relating to poverty and inequality.
“Obesity rates are highest for children from the most disadvantaged communities and this unacceptable health inequality has widened every year since records began,” said Dr Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP and chair of the committee. “The consequences for these children are appalling and this can no longer be ignored.”
Overweight and obesity are responsible for around 10% of the total disease burden in western and central European countries, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). And, between 1990 and 2010, the contribution of overweight to the overall burden of disease increased by 39% in Europe and Central Asia.
But, while obesity is rising in many countries, it added, it’s rising fastest in low socio-economic population groups.
“There is a strong relationship between obesity and low socio-economic status, especially for women,” read the report. “Moreover, obesity in women, especially during pregnancy, contributes to the health risks of their children and this amplifies health inequities across generations.”
What’s more, the report added, the main driving force behind the obesity epidemic in lower socio-economic groups is eating more “energy-dense foods”, rather than not getting as much exercise.
“This jump towards higher energy intake is due to innovations in food manufacturing and distribution, leading to increased supply of cheap, palatable, energy-dense foods that are much more accessible, convenient, and marketed pervasively,” it said.
“Healthy food tends to be less convenient, less accessible, and more expensive,” it added. “Energy-dense foods of poor nutritional value are cheaper than more nutritious foods such as vegetables and fruit, and relatively poor families with children purchase food primarily to satisfy their hunger.”
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver also weighed in on the debate, and reportedly said that “there are no silver bullets” in solving the problem.
“The government needs to launch a multi-pronged strategy that pulls every possible lever to help support better outcomes for our kids,” he said, in response to the committee’s report. “In turn, we need to make healthier food cheaper and more easily available for parents.”
As well as the ban on cartoon characters, the committee also called for a “whole system approach” to beating the problem. It made a number of other recommendations, including:
- Supermarkets to be forced to remove sweets, chocolate, and unhealthy snacks from the ends of aisles and checkout areas
- A ban on adverts for junk food before the 9 p.m. TV watershed
- Restrictions on junk food price promotions, like buy-one-get-one-free
- Giving local authorities the power to limit the number of fast food outlets opening in their areas
- A government ban on sponsorship of sports clubs, venues, youth leagues, and tournaments by brands linked with unhealthy products
- Reducing children’s exposure to junk food adverts on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube
The Department of Health and Social Care described its efforts to combat childhood obesity as “the most ambitious in the world”, and said that it is currently planning its next moves to tackle the problem.
“Childhood obesity is a complex problem, decades in the making," said a spokesperson for the department, who added that the department is also investing in further research into the links between obesity and inequality.
Stephen Woodford, the CEO of the Advertising Association, said the UK had “among the strictest rules in the world” on promoting products with high fat, sugar, and salt content to children, reported the BBC.
“We remain of the view that measures such as a 9 p.m. watershed would be ineffective in tackling the complex root causes of childhood obesity, which are linked to a whole range of factors, including socio-economic background, ethnicity, and educational attainment,” he said.
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