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Ad Brake: Primary school children’s perceptions of unhealthy food advertising on TV

Addressing chronic diseases like cancer is one of the biggest challenges of our age. A key element of this is prevention - working to ensure that we minimise exposure to risk factors that can contribute to the development of cancer. Most people know that smoking is a leading preventable risk factor but there is far less awareness about the links between cancer and obesity. Yet obesity ranks as the second largest preventable cause of cancer after tobacco use. In my role as Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Prevention Champion, I’d like to see more action to prevent excessive weight gain before it starts. This includes in children, as people who gain too much weight in early life are far more likely to be obese adults.

A common view is that weight gain is largely driven by personal choice and if people just had more self control, they wouldn’t become overweight or obese. The decisions we make for ourselves are important, but things in our environment also affect our choices. This is particularly the case for children who can’t always
control what they are exposed to, or be as critical about what they see and hear, as adults may be. This report examines one of the key aspects of children’s environments that influences behaviour – advertising and promotion.

As the report shows, children in the UK are exposed to the marketing of unhealthy foods high in fat, salt and sugar on a regular basis. They see these on television,
online and in the cinema. These adverts are appealing and memorable to children. The participants in the study had good recall of particular adverts and also outlined how viewing these ads can prompt them to want to eat unhealthy foods, and as well as asking for them at home and in shops and supermarkets. Seeing and recalling adverts was linked to hunger, desire to buy these foods and requests for adults to buy them.

This research shows that current regulations on advertising of these foods are not protecting children. More needs to be done to break the link between this type of exposure and consumption of unhealthy foods, which can contribute to children becoming overweight or obese and thereby increase their risk of developing future cancers if they remain overweight. This study and other evidence supports the case for a pre-watershed ban of unhealthy food television advertising in the UK. This is why Cancer Research UK is calling for this policy change. We need to do all we can to prevent cancer, and by starting early in life we have the best chances of success in the longer term.

This report was commissioned by the Policy Research Centre for Cancer Prevention. The Centre is part of Cancer Research UK's commitment to produce high quality research, building the evidence base to inform policy development on topics relevant to cancer prevention, including obesity.