Obesity risk doubles for teens bombarded with junk food adverts

Cancer Research UK

Teenagers are more than twice as likely to be obese if they can remember seeing a junk food advert every day compared to those who couldn’t recall any over a month, according to a report by Cancer Research UK

This included ads on TV, billboards and social media, and is the largest survey of its kind to make a link between these forms of advertising and weight. Obese teenagers were more likely to recall social media adverts than the other mediums, so this platform had the greatest association with obesity. *

"It’s particularly worrying that the poorest teens had the best recall of junk food ads. We can’t allow the industry free rein to target young people, especially as we know that eating habits adopted in childhood are more likely to remain into adulthood." - Dr Jyotsna Vohra

The report was based on a YouGov survey which questioned 3,348 young people in the UK between 11-19 about their TV viewing habits, diet and their BMI.

Following statistical analysis the results also revealed that teens from the most deprived communities were 40% more likely to remember seeing junk food advertisements every day compared to teens from better-off families. 

Previous research has shown that people from more deprived communities are also more at risk of being obese. 

When teens watched shows on TV and streaming websites without adverts researchers found no link between screen time and likelihood of being obese. This suggests that the adverts may be prompting young people to eat more junk food.

Dr Jyotsna Vohra, a lead author on the study from Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s particularly worrying that the poorest teens had the best recall of junk food ads. We can’t allow the industry free rein to target young people, especially as we know that eating habits adopted in childhood are more likely to remain into adulthood.

“Since this data was collected new restrictions on junk food adverts on social media aimed at children have come into force. But it’s been 10 years since we’ve seen any update to the rules on TV adverts.

 “Curbing exposure to junk food ads would help reduce obesity rates among young people, particularly as their passion for social media shows no signs of waning.”

Regularly eating junk food, which usually has high levels of fat and sugar, increases the risk of becoming overweight or obese.

Obesity is the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK after smoking, and is linked to 13 types of cancer including bowel, breast, and pancreatic.

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “This study found a strong link between exposure to junk food ads and an increase in teens’ risk of being obese, and suggests that the poorest are hit hardest.

“Although being overweight is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking, only 15% of people recognise that obesity is a proven cancer risk.

“Right now, we hope to see a 9pm ban on junk food ads in the government’s upcoming obesity strategy which requires a simple change of rules from Ofcom. Cancer Research UK is also funding more research into the potential impact of social media on obesity so we can start to investigate this area more.

“Young people from more deprived backgrounds have the most to gain from a 9pm ban on unhealthy TV adverts. Urgent action is needed from Ofcom to support efforts to reduce the health inequalities between the poorest and richest in our society.”

To find out more visit our campaign page on restricting junk food advertising

ENDS

For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on +44 203 469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on +44 7050 264 059.

References

Stamatakis E, Wardle J, Cole TJ. Childhood obesity and overweight prevalence trends in England: evidence for growing socioeconomic disparities. Int J Obes (Lond) 2010; 34(1): 41-7.

 

Notes to Editor

Thomas F., Hooper L., Petty R., Thomas C., Rosenberg G. and Vohra J. A Prime Time for Action: New evidence on the link between television and on-demand marketing and obesity. 2018.

* Calculations:

Advert recall compared respondents who recalled seeing junk food marketing on platforms every day in the last month compared to those who did not recall seeing any in the last month. A logistic regression showed a statistically significant association to obese BMI scores from those who recalled seeing junk food marketing on TV, billboard and social media platforms every day.

Television: 27% of obese participants recalled seeing adverts every day, and for other BMI categories this was 18%.

Billboards: 22% of obese participants recalled seeing adverts every day, and for other BMI categories this was 12%

Social Media: 32% of obese participants recalled seeing adverts every day, and for other BMI categories this was 22%

When teens watched 42 hours or more a week of on-demand websites and TV, they had almost double the risk of obesity.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3,348 11 to 19 year olds. Fieldwork was undertaken between 8th May and 8th July 2017.  The survey was carried out online. The figures are representative of 11 to 19 year olds by age, gender, ethnicity, IMD decile (deprivation) and region.