The case to limit junk-food adverts

One way to reduce high obesity rates is to restrict the promotion of unhealthy food

Should the advertising of sugary drinks like Coca-Cola be restricted to help fight obesity in the UAE? Beawiharta / Reuters
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The UAE has one of the world's highest rates of obesity, with experts even calling it a "ticking time bomb" and a "national crisis" to the point that it poses a threat to the country's economic wellbeing. A recent study suggests one in three children is overweight or obese and at risk of early diabetes and hypertension. But what can be done about it?

Other countries have been active in looking for ways to tackle childhood obesity. This week, UK ministers have released a controversial report calling for a tax of up to 20 per cent on sugary drinks and foods in restaurants as part of a broader childhood obesity strategy. Mexico has recently introduced a 10 per cent tax on sugary drinks to fight the escalating rates of obesity in the country. But is this a workable solution to cut down the consumption of high-calorie food?

On the one hand, a tax could encourage the food industry to change their products to reduce the sugar content. But with the modest prices involved – a can of soft drink costs Dh1.50, for example – a tax seems unlikely to raise the price sufficiently to change attitudes. People know fast food is unhealthy but they continue to eat highly processed and unhealthy food.

A better strategy to reduce children’s junk food consumption would be to target the way it is advertised. The UAE needs to have clear marketing rules that restrict the way restaurants advertise their products. For example, price promotions such as two-for-one deals fuel consumption. Similarly, the use of cartoon characters for fast food advertisements aimed at children should also be banned because studies have shown that they can play a key role in triggering “emotional responses” from young children, encouraging them to buy.

There could also be more strict rules on all forms of advertising of products containing high levels of sugar or fat, particularly on children’s television and in online advertisements placed on social media sites and mobile apps. The fight against obesity should continue but taxation or price hikes may not prove effective.