Junk food firms must stop marketing their products to children – or face a total advertising ban, health chiefs have said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said food giants are exploiting loopholes in regulations to bombard children with adverts on YouTube and Facebook.
And one of Public Health England’s advisers called for the rules to be redrawn – with advertisements for fatty and sugary foods banned entirely if children were found to be being exposed to them.
The call came as research from the University of Liverpool found three-quarters of under 16s are being exposed to such adverts on social media – despite rules which are supposed to protect them.
A new report by the WHO today warns that watchdogs are failing to keep pace with sophisticated marketing techniques used to promote junk foods to ever younger markets.
It warns of “unequivocal evidence” that exposure to such products is fuelling a global obesity crisis.
In the UK, advertising authorities say that products high in fat and sugar can only be advertised if at least three quarters of the audience is adult.
But Nick Sheron, a clinical adviser to PHE, said these rules did not go far enough – calling for a ban on such adverts if children were found to be being exposed to them.
Speaking at the launch of the report, he said: “Surely we should be saying to them, this is the deal – We allow you to market your products providing you restrict or prevent the exposure to children. Or we will remove your ability to market your products.”
Dr Sheron said the Government should set strict rules and leave the food giants to work out how to comply.
“In the same way the UK Govt have said to motor industry by 2040 you will not sell petrol or diesel cars they will all be electric. We don’t care how you do it, just do it.” “At the moment the goalposts have been set by the commercial operators,” he said.
“We should be expecting government to set the regulation such that children are protected. And at the moment, they are not being protected. And that needs to change. “They should say to the obesogenic food industry and the drink industry, after a certain period you need to be able to show you are protecting children from exposure to marketing, and if not, we will not allow you to market your products.”
Mimi Tatlow-Golden, lecturer in child psychology at the Open University, said it was not a “fair fight” between watchdogs and social media companies.
The academic said advertisers could easily get round the current regulations.
“It’s easy … to say ‘we’re not targeting children – we’re just sending messages to people who like Ariana Grande’ – by which they are targeting children,” she said.
“We know almost nothing and the people who are running the systems have access to all the information,” she said, accusing advertisers of “wholesale, non-consensual data extraction from children which is being used to target them.”
“This is the kind of war we are in,” she said, calling it a “David and Goliath” battle.
It comes as ministers prepare to consult on a ban on TV junk food advertisements before 9pm.
But Dr Tatlow-Golden said the move was a “brilliant marketing exercise” which would make little difference to children – unless it was backed by a clampdown on adverts on social media.
Dr Joao Breda, from the WHO regional office for Europe, said watchdogs had “obsolete” tools and “the wrong ammunition” to deal with sophisticated techniques employed in marketing, to tailor adverts on social media.
Calling for more stringent measures to protect children, he said the current environment “is a wonderful world for marketeers”.
A spokesman for the Advertising Standards Authority said: “Age-restricted ads, such as those for alcohol, gambling and foods high in fat, salt or sugar are forbidden from being targeted at children. This strict rule applies across all media, including ads online, in social media spaces and advergames.
“We’re currently monitoring children’ s exposure to age-restricted online ads as part of our pro-active enforcement of this rule. As well as resolving complaints, we undertake compliance sweeps to make sure ads are responsible.”