Background In the United Kingdom (UK) increasing childhood obesity rates may be indicative of a lack of regulation of corporate influences contributing to an obesogenic environment. A current focus in childhood obesity policy debates is the role that online advertising of high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) food and beverages plays as a driver of childhood obesity and what regulation is required. However, there is a lack of research in this area as to public acceptability of regulation of online advertising of HFSS products as a viable policy solution. This study examines the perceptions of parents and stakeholders in regulating this online environment to answer how the regulation of online advertising of HFSS products to children is viewed in the UK?
Methods Three qualitative methods were triangulated: 1) eight focus groups with parents who have children aged between five and 15 years old; 2) scoping review of 85 responses to a 2016 Committees of Advertising Practice consultation on non-broadcast advertising to children; and 3) 11 stakeholder interviews (industry, civil society, academics and government body). Data were analysed inductively and thematically using NVivo.
Results Parents reported finding it increasingly difficult to attain a healthy diet for their children, competing with a multitude of pressures, including online advertising of HFSS products. Non-industry stakeholders agreed with this perspective, whereas industry stakeholders were sceptical as to the influence online advertising had in contributing to an obesogenic environment. In terms of attitudes to regulation, two views emerged from the three data sets: 1) support for increased regulation of online advertising of HFSS products, or 2) the continuation of the current self-regulatory model. Underpinning their views were concerns as to the distribution of power within the obesogenic environment, with the majority of parents and all non-industry stakeholders describing the food and beverage industry as possessing too much power, and government and parents possessing too little. In contrast, the remaining parents and industry stakeholders argued that government possessed too much power and as such infringed on individual autonomy.
Conclusion Parents’ and stakeholders’ views in this study largely aligned with Beauchamp’s (1976) theory on social justice versus market justice. Although not generalisable, this study offers insights into how their perspectives on the distribution of power within the obesogenic environment may have informed their views on implementing increased regulation of the online advertising environment as a viable policy solution to tackle childhood obesity.
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