The folly of advertising bans and fat taxes in the fight against obesity

The recent call from Janet Hoek, professor of marketing at Otago University, for "tobacco-type restrictions" on so-called unhealthy food and drink reflects the continued flawed thinking of many concerned about obesity.

As a prelude to this week’s research symposium “NZ’s waistline—what will it take to fix it?” this continued focus on advertising bans, taxes, plain packaging etc as means to reduce obesity shows a poor understanding of both consumer behaviour and the role of advertising. One would expect more from marketing academics.

International experience, for example the failed “fat tax” in Denmark, demonstrates this. Danes simply chose lower-cost alternatives or even border-hopped for their groceries to avoid the tax. Targeted food taxes in Finland saw consumption shift from, for example, taxed chocolate to untaxed biscuits, or from ice cream to yoghurts and other desserts, often with similarly high sugar content.

Advertising bans may feel like a panacea for those who object in principle to McDonald's or Coca-Cola to legitimately trade. The reality is the great majority of these “unhealthy foods” are not advertised at all.

One need only look at the size of the café sector, which dwarfs the quick-service restaurant sector in scale, and the foods it sells. And what of the independent takeaway operators? Indeed, many branded products in retail supermarkets are rarely advertised—if at all, yet consumers still buy them. So why would a food advertising ban shift the needle on obesity?

Of course, the attempt to link food with tobacco is purely tactical. The differences are acute. Culturally and socially food plays an important part in our lives. Nutritionally food is critical to survival. Rather than continuing this mantra to “ban and tax”, it would be far more useful to consider obesity as the highly complex challenge it is, evidenced by the UK Foresight report, the best analysis yet on the issue.

Recognising that there aren’t silver bullets to fire would be helpful.

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