Sweden, civil society appeal for a ban on junk food advertising aimed at minors

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Representatives of civil society in Sweden are asking the government to take responsibility for the continuous worsening of the health conditions of minors, caused by unbalanced diets, and to ban junk food advertising aimed at minors (1,2).

The problem raised in the Scandinavian country is evidently widespread in every country of the Old Continent, including the islands. And it is therefore time for Europe to reform the failing Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AMSD).

1) Sweden, widespread malnutrition

 Malnutrition in Sweden is an increasingly serious problem. A recent survey by the organization Generation PEP, committed to promoting a healthy and active lifestyle, shows that only 3% of minors follow a diet consistent with the Swedish Food Agency guidelines. Only 40% of Swedish children and adolescents consume fruit and/or vegetables every day. Consumption of fish is lower and consumption of cured meats and meats is higher than the nutritional recommendations. (3)

The prevalence of obesity and overweight increases with age, from 10% in 4-year-old children up to 30% of young people between 16 and 29 years old. These conditions significantly increase mental distress and the risk of contracting serious and chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Which in turn represent one of the leading causes of premature death, in Sweden as elsewhere. (4)

2) Influence of advertising on minors’ food choices

Eating habits are formed in the family, in school canteens, but also through the stimuli that come from society. And in recent years both the offer on the market and the advertising of ultra-processed foods and junk food have increased exponentially. According to data from UNICEF Sweden and the Heart and Lung Foundation, 80% of all food advertising is related to products with unbalanced nutritional profiles. A figure in line with the European JRC findings way back in 2018. (5)

Advertising furthermore, has a great influence on the food choices of children and minors. (6) The scientific review ‘The effect of screen advertising on children’s dietary intake‘ (Russel et al., 2019), in reviewing a series of studies conducted in various countries, demonstrates:

– a direct causal relationship between children’s exposure to audiovisual advertising of food products with poor nutritional profiles and their intake,

– an average increase of 60 kcal/day in energy intake in children subjected only to junk food television advertising. (7) Probably growing, with the widespread diffusion of smartphones, social networks and ‘online video sharing’.

3) Government responsibility

Organizations signatories of the appeal invoke the responsibility of the Swedish government which must therefore take action to reverse this evil trend. Sweden adheres to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the State therefore has the obligation to guarantee effective rules to protect children from the marketing of foods with high energy content and unbalanced nutritional profiles.

in 1991 Sweden had banned audiovisual advertising aimed at children up to 12 years of age, but only considered radio and television media. This law, however, has been overcome by technological evolution and the radical change in social habits that have occurred in the last three decades. Today, in fact, minors are the target of advertising through the web and social media, as well as sponsorships of sporting events.

The government Sweden must therefore commit to reviewing and updating the legislation, so that it is effective in protecting the health of minors. This request corresponds, among other things, to the widespread awareness and opinion of parents of children. 67% of whom, in a survey conducted in Sweden by the ‘Heart and Lung’ Foundation, say that their children are influenced in their food choices by advertising which should therefore be subjected to restrictions.

4) Swedish perspectives

The Swedish Food Agencyrequested the help of citizens – with a citizen science approach (8) – to identify useful tools to promote healthy and sustainable food consumption, for human and environmental health.

A panel of 60 citizens discussed with the Agency’s experts, in 2023, in various working groups that also consider the influence of marketing on food consumption, to propose suggestions that the government will be responsible for implementing. (9)

Sweden at least, is one of the countries of the Old Continent where the ‘keyhole system’, a FOPNL (Front-of-Pack Nutrition Labelling), similar in some respects to Nutriscore, has been applied for decades. Its consumers thus have the opportunity to see the nutritional profiles of foods on the label. (10)

5) Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the unresolved European problem

Organizations of civil society in Sweden have the merit of affirming a clear and uncompromising position, public health must prevail over the lucrative business of junk food producers and the advertising industry that serves them. The same does not happen in countries like Italy, where obesity and overweight in children and minors are equally widespread but consumer organizations are silent, if not in turn sponsored by Big Food.

Persistence of marketing predatory junk food in Europe – which UNICEF had already denounced in 2019, at a global level (11) – demonstrates the complete failure of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AMSD) to protect minors, as has already been observed. (12) And the responses of individual states – already implemented in the UK, announced in Germany and invoked in France (13,14,15) – cannot resolve the public health crisis affecting the entire macro-region, as attested from WHO Europe. (16)

Mandatory and uniform limits are needed in the European single market, monitoring of ‘marketing to kids’ and the nutritional profiles of foods advertised with every online and offline tool (including ‘online video sharing’ and ‘social media’ platforms), mandatory reporting by operators in the S (Social) criterion among the ESG, in the due diligence balance sheets. (17)

Dario Dongo and Alessandra Mei

Footnotes

(1) The signatories of the appeal in Sweden are:

– Ulrika Årehed Kågström, general secretary of the Cancer Foundation
– Kristina Sparreljung, general secretary of the Heart-Lung Foundation
– Jan Bergtoft, general secretary for Swedish Consumers
– Pernilla Baralt, Secretary General of UNICEF Sweden

(2) Prohibit the advertising of unhealthy foods to children and young people. Sydsvenskan. 1.1.24 http://tinyurl.com/3j8mf9y8

(3) Generation PEP Report http://tinyurl.com/2k2s36vf

(4) Overweight and obesity. Public Health Authority of Sweden http://tinyurl.com/58y6tsv8

(5) Marta Strinati. Baby food, 68% is junk food. European research. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(6) Marta Strinati. The healthy effect of the ban on junk food advertising on London buses. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(7) Simon J Russell, Helen Croker, Russell M Viner. The effect of screen advertising on children’s dietary intake: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews. 21.12.18 https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12812

(8) ECSA (European Citizen Science Association). 2015. Ten Principles of Citizen Science. Berlin http://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/XPR2N

(9) Livsmedelsverket (Swedish Food Agency). The citizens’ group provided tips on how to eat healthily and sustainably. 15.6.23 http://tinyurl.com/2m9b3y69

(10) Pitt S, Julin B, Øvrebø B, Wolk A. Front-of-Pack Nutrition Labels: Comparing the Nordic Keyhole and Nutri-Score in a Swedish Context. Nutrients. 2023; 15(4):873. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15040873

(11) Dario Dongo, Sabrina Bergamini. Climate, predatory marketing and children’s health. Unicef ​​report. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(12) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. ‘Audiovisual Media Services Directive’ and protection of minors from junk food marketing. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(13) Dario Dongo. England, stop advertising junk food thanks to the Health and Care Bill. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(14) Marta Strinati. Germany sets new limits on junk food marketing to kids. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(15) Marta Strinati. France, 50 thousand signatures against junk food marketing. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(16) Sabrina Bergamini, Dario Dongo. Obesity, childhood obesity and marketing. WHO Europe 2022 report. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(17) Dario Dongo. Sustainability report, ESG and due diligence. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.

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Graduated in Law from the University of Bologna, she attended the Master in Food Law at the same University. You participate in the WIISE srl benefit team by dedicating yourself to European and international research and innovation projects.