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Why Big Food is worse than Big Tobacco ever was

While it’s better known for its outlandish claims rather than high moral standards, one thing the tobacco industry never openly did was target young children – unlike Big Food, whose pursuit of the kiddie pound can only be described as shameless manipulation.

Smoking’s heyday in the 1950s featured adverts that asserted Pall Mall “guards against throat scratch”, while Chesterfield cigarettes were regularly tested by a “medical specialist” who concluded they had “no adverse effect on the nose, throat and sinuses”. In 1959, an atmospheric TV ad depicted a man lighting up in a dark, empty, rain-soaked street to the voiceover, “You’re never alone with a Strand” – playing on the uncomfortable truth of addictive behaviour, that we do it in order to feel better.

However, in 2013 Big Tobacco’s manipulation game was severely curtailed when a ban on cigarette advertising was rolled out across the UK. Silk Cut responded with a final ad campaign featuring a fat lady singing, wearing – of course – their signature purple.

But Big Food treads a path down which even the tobacco industry never ventured. While cigarette marketers pushed their wares at adults and teens, they never openly targeted children. In comparison, consider the brightly packaged boxes of sugary cereal, adorned with cute cartoon characters, placed just at a child’s eye level in the supermarket.

The UK government has gone some way to defend young consumers against these marketing tactics, but there are huge loopholes to exploit. There are currently no restrictions on non-broadcast media, which includes sponsorship, packaging, text messaging, social media and the internet. In 2011, a report from the British Heart Foundation highlighting marketing techniques including offering downloadable free gifts of screensavers, posters, apps and ringtones – enabling a brand’s message to remain long after a child has left the website.

When a child takes part in an online game or competition, they are encouraged to give an email address, leaving the door open for a bombardment of follow-up communication. Some sites even encourage children to enter the email addresses of their friends, under the pretext of sending them an eCard or gift so they can join in with the game.

Depressingly, the approach works well. According to a report by Compass, 70% of three year olds recognise the McDonald’s logo but only half of them know their own surname.

Protection from predatory marketing by immoral companies who care more about profit than consumer health is a vital pillar in the strategy against obesity. The question is, how willing is our government to go against the millions of pounds Big Food spends on lobbying politicians, manipulating scientific data and relying on propaganda to boost sales of their products?

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