Global rules on advertising food and drinks to children are inconsistent and changing

Many countries have regulations to control children’s exposure to advertising for products with high levels of fat, sugar and salt, and there is a distinct lack of harmony worldwide. This article sheds light on the situation with insights into seven markets around the world.

Concerns about childhood obesity have led many governments to assess advertising rules for high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods.    The regulations related to this differ from country to country, with challenges ranging from the lack of a consistent age-related definition of ‘a child’ to discrepancies between criteria for food categories and marketing methods (e.g. advertising versus advertainment). Here, we summarise the current situation in the EU, UK, Canada and four key Latin American markets to help food and beverage companies find the best way forward.


The EU situation

At present, there are no EU rules for the nutritional criteria of foods advertised to children. However, an EU pledge includes two central commitments:

  • No advertising of products to children aged under 12 years, except for products which fulfil common nutritional criteria based on accepted scientific evidence and/or applicable national and international dietary guidelines (this relates to any situation where under-12s make up 35% or more of an audience)
  • No communication related to products in primary schools, except where specifically requested by, or agreed with, the school administration for educational purposes

The EU pledge also offers guidance on nutritional criteria to define ‘better-for-you’ options in the context of food and beverage advertising to under-12s. Each market has its own code of practice based on the EU pledge, and this is adopted on a voluntary basis by the food and beverage industry. It’s important to note that some EU states are stricter than others.


Rules in the UK

In the UK, food adverts targeting children are regulated by law. HFSS food adverts in children’s online media were banned by the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) in July 2017, mirroring strict standards already in place for TV. Furthermore, in accordance with the UK’s Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code, no medium can advertise HFSS products if more than 25% of its audience is under 16 years of age.


New measures coming in Brazil

In Brazil, any form of advertising or promotion of HFSS foods and low-nutrition drinks aimed at children must include very specific messaging. This is based on general provisions which include references to children, defined as ‘individuals up to 12 years old’.

Several legislative documents are also being processed at federal, state, district and municipal levels. These cover the advertising of food for schools (including canteens), soft drink adverts and food combos with toys, as well as measures that deal more broadly with advertising aimed at children.


How things stand in Chile

Food and beverage advertising regulation for children in Chile focuses on under-14s. The aim is to instil healthy lifestyle habits by regulating food and drink products that can be commercialised and advertised in schools and high schools. Promotion of processed food products that bear front of pack warning statements (e.g. high in sugars, high in salt) is also restricted. Furthermore, the hours in which adverts for these foods can be broadcast is limited, as is their content, for instance gifts, quizzes and games are not allowed.

This is in addition to the non-binding Chilean Code of Advertising Ethics which includes provisions regarding advertisements targeting minors and under-14s.


Guidelines in Mexico

In Mexico, the advertising of food and beverages intended for children is mainly covered by the Regulation of the General Health Law on advertising. Food and non-alcoholic beverage advertisements on TV and in cinemas must also comply with certain nutrition and advertisement criteria. These are set out in guidelines published by the Secretariat and cover nutrition profiles within 12 different food categories. Consideration is given to the amount of energy, sodium, saturated fat and total sugars per portion or per 100g or 100ml. Depending on how a product fits with these established nutrient profiles, it may be allowed to air at any time or within specific time slots.

These measures aim to prevent children from being exposed to the advertising of food and non-alcoholic beverages with high caloric content. There is no specific indication for the age range of this provision. However, Mexico’s labelling standard defines children as being aged 36 months to 12 years.


Legal requirements in Peru

The advertising of food products aimed at under-16s is subject to certain legal requirements in Peru. These are laid down under a Consumer Protection Code and a Law for the Promotion of a Healthy Diet for Children and Adolescents. This restricts the content of food advertisements (e.g. use of cartoons). It also forbids encouraging children under the age of 16 to consume food products that carry front of pack HFSS warning statements.


Canada's approach

Children’s food and beverage commercials are subject to the requirements of The Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children in Canada. This includes the preclearance of individual children’s commercials by a committee comprising industry and parent representatives. The age of children is not defined, however, the guide’s references to ‘minors’ and ‘under-age’ indicates that it relates to under-18s.


Repercussions for food and beverage businesses

Increasing evidence of a link between exposure to HFSS adverts and childhood obesity is driving a general tightening of the rules. However, a lack of global harmony means food and beverage businesses must pay close attention to current and emerging regulations for the countries in which they operate. The implications go beyond marketing strategies for HFSS foods. In some situations, they could drive new requirements for product formulations.

This is a time of great change, and it will be important to monitor developments over the coming months and years. Devising a well-informed and adaptive approach is essential.

At Leatherhead, we can help you stay one step ahead of upcoming changes, as well as advising on current rules in markets around the world. Find out more about our horizon scanning service here or get in touch with the team for regulatory support.


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