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10 Years On: New evidence on TV marketing and junk food eating amongst 11-19 year olds 10 years after broadcast regulations

Obesity is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking and is linked to 18,100 cancer cases a year in the UK (5.5% of all cancer cases), with the largest number of weight-linked cases in the UK being breast, bowel and womb. Between 1998 and 2008, obesity in England more than doubled and modelling studies estimate that if current trends of overweight and obesity continue, it could lead to a further 670,000 cancer cases by 20354. The cost of this rise in obesity to the NHS would be an extra £2.5 billion/year.

Children’s obesity constitutes a specific problem. As Public Health England’s National Childhood Measurement Programme trends analysis report recently showed, obesity rates are holding steady at an alarmingly high level. An obese child is five times more likely to become an obese adult. In the long-term, this increases health and cancer risk, and in the short-term can cause physiological and psychological harm. There is no one reason that explains the rise in levels of obesity amongst young people. Research has pointed to factors as diverse as genetics, increased food and drink consumption and lower levels of exercise. However, factors which increase food and drink consumption and calorie intake have been shown to be the more powerful explanations.

The link between junk food marketing and the consumption of products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) is clear in the research literature. The weight of the evidence led the UK government to introduce regulations in 2008 preventing all junk food marketing on children’s programming. A decade on, these regulations may now be out of date. One particular concern is that they have not kept up with changing viewing habits. Ofcom figures show young people watch the most television (TV) between 7:00 and 8:00pm, when family entertainment shows are more common, where junk food regulations remain generally lighter, and HFSS adverts are most regularly aired.

This research is designed to test current broadcast regulations and explore whether they remain fit for purpose ten years on. Through a UK-wide and representative study of 11-19 year old’s diet, weight, marketing exposure and screen time, we explored whether the impact of junk food marketing on young people is acceptably low. We also examined whether new viewing habits, such as online on-demand streaming, need to be considered. This adds to the evidence base and provide an opportunity for UK policy makers to act.