Charing Cross Bridge, London

Another Effective and Ineffective Anti-Obesity Policy

Authors of a new study in PLOS Medicine tell us that they have encouraging new evidence for an effective anti-obesity policy. They conclude

“These findings provide support for policies that restrict HFSS [high fat, salt, or sugar] product advertising as a tool to reduce purchases of HFSS products, as a way of improving population diet and preventing obesity.”

Unfortunately, these enthusiastic conclusions require some caveats. Most notably, this study shows no effect on obesity. What they have shown is that an advertising ban on HFSS food products was associated with a slower rate of growth in their sales. The ban in question applied only to advertising in the London transport system. The association was for a short period of time – the first ten months after the ban went into effect.

In other words, these researchers have shown that sales go down when advertising stops.

Assigning Implications for Policy

Researchers leading this study were quick to say that their findings have immediate implications for policy. Senior author Steven Cummins said:

“The findings are particularly significant in light of the Health Bill currently going through Parliament, as they provide further evidence for the effectiveness of advertising restrictions and help support the case for the Government’s proposed ban on the online advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods and drinks.”

But the researchers note in their paper that, by itself, this policy change might have no effect on obesity:

“Single interventions cannot be expected to work on their own and should be seen as one part of a wider strategy to improve population health, with multiple interventions needed at multiple points within the food system to improve diet.”

Tinkering with the Fine Points of Food Marketing

Writing for Food Navigator, Oliver Morrison notes that despite these favorable shifts in HFSS purchases in London, child obesity rose sharply at the same time in London. Many other factors came into play, including the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The environmental influences on obesity are many, they are messy, and we do not fully understand them.

However, we have serious doubts about micro efforts to solve a macro problem. Discrete efforts to regulate marketing of unhealthy food are unlikely to have any effect on the burden of obesity. Complex, adaptive systems are at work. They are finely tuned to prosper by selling us ever more food and making it more convenient to consume. The systems adapt and keep selling us more food in the absence of more fundamental changes.

Note that the only thing this study showed was a short-term slowing in the rate of increase. Sales kept going up. The system adapts. Food and beverage consumption rises. Obesity rises with it.

Tinkering with the fine points of food marketing will likely have a nil effect over the long term.

Click here for the study in PLOS Medicine, here for more from Food Navigator, and here for more on the folly of marketing “healthy food” to promote population health.

Charing Cross Bridge, London; painting by Andre Derain / WikiArt

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February 25, 2022