‘Advertising ban is only part of solution to child obesity problem’

Childhood obesity needs to be tackled within the home and schools. Photo: Getty Images

Childhood obesity needs to be tackled within the home and schools. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

A call for councils to have the power to ban junk food advertising near to schools is the latest move to help cut child obesity.

It sounds a sensible approach, albeit a little headline-grabbing, and although it is not a particularly new theme, the Local Government Association – which represents more than 370 councils – wants authorities to be given such powers by central government.

Its stance is underpinned by University of Stirling research on how children are influenced by junk food marketing, including outdoor adverts.

Some three-quarters of all food and drink marketing seen by 11 to 18-year-olds was for unhealthy food and almost two-thirds of the 2,285 children questioned recalled various food or drink promotions, with nearly half buying items in response.

The case for a ban of junk food ads near schools is a reasonably strong one as it would reduce children's exposure to unhealthy food and drinks, which are high in salt, fat and sugar and are significant factors in child obesity.

The call came ahead of the LGA's conference on childhood obesity and coincides with a public consultation by the Committee of Advertising Practice on whether to ban junk food advertising to children online, in the press, on billboards and poster sites.

If the government grants councils the powers they seek, they will have the freedom to control the advertising of junk food and sugary drinks if they felt it was an issue that needed tackling in their area.

Most Read

Under the current system, councils have to apply to the secretary of state, followed by a period of consultation before a decision is reached.

Statistics show that 3.5 million UK children are obese or overweight, something that can lead to a higher risk of major health problems such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

It is a massive issue and one that needs tackling – and councils are doing their bit.

However, if they are serious about tackling a crisis that will only get worse, any action they plan to take has to be considered, well-thought-through and part of a wider strategy with joined-up thinking and a targeted outcome.

And this is where local authorities have to be very careful indeed if they are to be taken seriously in the fight against child obesity.

It would be so easy for them to find themselves accused of double standards or sending out mixed messages if they are anything but consistent in the approach.

Will councils, for example, ban vending machines selling sweets and fizzy drinks from leisure centres or public swimming pools that they run?

Banning advertising near schools may seem a promising step for the sector with responsibility for public health, but if local councils are to make a real impact then they should deliver a broader package – something that is most likely easier said than done in these times of fiscal restraint and amid growing demands from the older generation for health and social care.

That means ensuring schools serve healthy school dinners – not just so-called healthy options – and it means that they should also play a part in making sure that schools offer a broad range of physical activities so that pupils get regular exercise

Richard Kemp, deputy chairman of the LGA Community Wellbeing Board, said urgent action was needed to tackle child obesity.

'Giving councils powers to control marketing of junk food, which is one of the major causes of this epidemic, will help us to tackle the issue,' he added.

While councils may be playing their part with this ad ban stance, childhood obesity is not going to be beaten by that alone.

Like most things, it needs to be tackled within the home and within schools – not just outside them.

And it has to be said that the very councils that are calling for the ban on advertising are those which can be most effective in raising the quality and consistency of provision of food within schools.

But to be effective, the move to ban junk food advertising near schools and nurseries has to be in unison with improving the quality of food offered within schools, stepping up teaching of nutrition and healthy eating, and then encouraging pupils take the message home.