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How a complete restriction on online advertising of unhealthy food could decrease tooth decay


  Posted by: The Probe      26th March 2021

An end to online advertising of unhealthy food would be a world-leading protective measure for young people’s health and wellbeing and reduce their risk of developing diet-related diseases, including tooth decay, says Dr Kawther Hashem – Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar

Have a think about how many food-related decisions you make every day. How many of these decisions do you think are influenced by what you are seeing on TV and social media?

We make over 200 decisions about the food we eat, consciously and unconsciously, and every day we are bombarded with encouragement and opportunity to choose the less healthy options. This primarily comes from paidfor advertising, which we know can shape everyone’s food choices (including children), and not always in a healthy way.

Evidence suggests that children’s exposure to products high in (saturated) fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) can affect what they eat and when they eat. This can happen in the short term (i.e. increasing the amount of food children eat immediately after being exposed to an HFSS food advert), and also in the longer term by shaping children’s food preferences from a young age. Restrictions on HFSS advertising could therefore help reduce this unwarranted exposure and improve our children’s health and wellbeing.

Furthermore, it can encourage companies producing HFSS products to change their recipes (reformulate) in order to make them healthier and enable them to continue advertising the product. If companies choose to do this, it could further increase the health benefits to both current and future generations.

Besides, most companies with a wide range of products can shift their marketing budget to healthier products and continue to advertise in a responsible way.

As part of its ‘tackling obesity strategy’, the Government committed to acting on protecting children from HFSS exposure on TV. Now, they are going further and consulted on a proposal to introduce a total restriction for these adverts online.

Robust legislation to restrict HFSS food marketing and promotions to protect the health of future generations is necessary for many reasons, but fundamentally it would:

1. Future-proof the policy against changes in children’s media habits. Who knows exactly how we will consume media in 10 years’ time? If we learned anything from this pandemic, it is that things can change, and can change drastically. Did you notice how many children were forced to sit in front of a screen to learn when schools had to close?

2. Ensure more transparency about how data is collected and how they target individuals with specific, sometimes tailored, ads. When a child hides their real age to get an Instagram or Facebook account, who knows if they are exposed to age-appropriate content – no one, because close to no one knows.

Let’s hope that following the government consultation on this, they will actually go ahead with the restrictions, despite the push from the advertising and food and drink companies.

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