OPINION | Extra dip? Why advertising junk food must be strictly regulated

Eating burgers with french fries.
Eating burgers with french fries.
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Evidence from South Africa’s tobacco control efforts indicate that exposure to junk foods through marketing can be reduced with legislation. Fast forward to 2020, smoking rates and exposure to tobacco through advertising and sponsorships have decreased significantly.  Why compare tobacco and food? Yandisa Ngqangashe explains. 

Evidence from South Africa’s tobacco control efforts indicate that exposure to junk foods through marketing can be reduced with legislation.

Before 1999, it was difficult to imagine a soccer season without the Rothmans’ Cup which was deemed the richest soccer tournament in Africa or the Peter Stuyvesant Music Spectacular that attracted international stars and was attended by thousands. The marketing of tobacco was such a norm that - when the government, with the amendments to the Tobacco Products Control Act of 1999, banned all forms of tobacco marketing - it seemed draconian and over the top.

Fast forward to 2020, smoking rates and exposure to tobacco through advertising and sponsorships have decreased significantly.  

Why compare tobacco and food? Similar to smoking, excess consumption of the heavily marketed, highly processed, unhealthy food is associated with non-communicable diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Both food and tobacco companies are notorious for pervasive and unscrupulous marketing to vulnerable groups especially children and low income communities.

Unlike tobacco, food is a basic human need and, until recently, obesity has always been framed as a consequence of unhealthy food choices, with little or no consideration of role played by food environment factors, such as food marketing, food prices, labelling and accessibility in enabling and reinforcing unhealthy diets.  

The use of legislation to create food environments that enable healthy diets is globally recognised as one of the approaches to reducing non communicable diseases. In the 2015 to 2020 strategy for prevention and control of obesity, the National Department of Health (NDOH) listed fiscal measures, food marketing regulations and food labelling as the top three most cost-effective interventions.

In line with this strategy, the sugar sweetened beverage tax was implemented in 2017, and this year new regulations on front of pack labels will be gazetted. While these actions are commendable, there have been delays with the legislations on the restrictions of unhealthy food marketing. In 2014, the ministry of health gazetted amendments to the Foods, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act No.54 of 1972). The proposedregulations (R429/2014) sought to prohibit the marketing of unhealthy food to children under the age of 12, as well as the use of celebrity endorsements and promotions to market unhealthy food to children under the age of 18.

Child-targeted marketing

Since the publication of these amendments for public comment, there has been little publicised action on the progress of implementing the food marketing regulations. In fact, there was no mention of the marketing regulations in the subsequent 2015-2020 NDOH’s strategy for the prevention and control of obesity. Instead, the key actions listed under the objective of responsible food advertising is the strengthening of voluntary advertising pledges. There is extensive research on the failure of these voluntary pledges to reduce exposure and the effects of food marketing to children, the legislation is therefore our best bet.

Although unfortunate, this delay gives us an opportunity to benchmark and learn from the challenges and contestations that have emerged in other jurisdictions that have taken the statutory approach to regulating food marketing. These contestations include, but are not limited to, the definition of child targeted marketing, regulating exposure to unhealthy food marketing through digital media and the regulation of non-broadcast media.

First, with regards to the definition of a child, the proposed draft legislation only prohibited the marketing of unhealthy food to those under the age of 12. However, unless there is context-specific scientific evidence that shows that South African children between 13 and 18 are not vulnerable to food marketing, the ban should not only apply to children under the age of 12. Moreover, defining "child targeted advertising" is open to multiple interpretations that can provide loopholes for the food and advertising industries.

Given the diversity of South African communities and the inequalities in accessing information and literacy rates, age cannot be the only indicator of vulnerability to pervasive food marketing. Obesity in South Africa peaks from the age of 15 and there is research that shows that low income media platforms are more likely to have unhealthy food advertisements compared to platforms that target the middle class.

For this reason, banning of all marketing of unhealthy food marketing regardless of the target population is a more equitable approach and eliminates the ambiguity of "child-targeted marketing".

Need for legislation

Second, the food marketing landscape has changed since the first time the regulations were initially proposed. Marketing through digital media has grown remarkably, we have to ensure that the legislation covers the newer forms of marketing and digital platforms. In recent events, tobacco companies used newer marketing forms like social media influencers to market tobacco despite the prohibitions of tobacco advertising. This is a lesson to design regulations for flexibility to adapt to the ever-changing digital marketing landscape.

Third, the marketing of unhealthy food through non-broadcast media - such as sponsorships of school sports, billboards, schools and hospitals - must also be included. For example, the headline sponsor for the mini-cricket tournament was Bakers Biscuits. These may fall more under the jurisdictions of provincial departments and local governments; however, we know that there are provinces and municipalities that function better than others.

Leaving the regulation of non-broadcast media to provinces and municipalities would reinforce the existing inequalities whereby people - most likely poor people who reside in provinces that do not have adequate capacity to regulate food marketing - would continue to be exposed to unhealthy food marketing.

The widening inequality gaps and shrinking budgets warrant equitable and cost-effective solutions, and the legislation of all forms of food marketing is the closest intervention to providing equal protection. Food marketing regulation is a highly contested space. Political will and concerted efforts by academia, public health experts and civil society are necessary keep this legislation on the agenda.

** Dr Yandisa Ngqangashe is a research fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University.

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