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The revision of the EU AVMSD (Audio-visual Media Services Directive), proposed by the EC (European Commission) in May 2016, offers health organisations a once-in-a decade opportunity to protect children from commercial communications on alcoholic beverages and products high in fat, sugar and salt.
The EP (European Parliament) and EU council of ministers are in the process of drafting their positions on the EC’s proposal before a series of trilogue meetings between the three institutions take place in May or June.
The EP’s CULT (Culture and Education) committee, which leads scrutiny of the EC’s proposal, published its draft report in September 2016 and, after postponing the final vote on the report several times, owing to extensive industry lobbying, it finally took place on 25 April.
Looking at the debate at EU level, its institutions support self- and co-regulation despite the growing body of research that shows the ineffectiveness of such an approach to protecting children and young people from the marketing of the aforementioned food and drinks.
The adopted EP’s CULT report maintains voluntary self- and co-regulation for advertising of alcohol and food high in fat, sugar and salt – and the wording is not strict enough to protect children and minors which allows the industry wide scope for interpretation and using loopholes to advertise their products.
Despite many MEPs from all parties who have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the rising levels of childhood overweight and obesity and the alarming levels of youth binge drinking that persist in Europe today, the leading CULT committee repeatedly ignored the public health angle in its report and even weakened the EC’s proposal on some areas. That message has been voiced by the collaboration of Brussels-based public health organisations of which the BMA is part. However, CULT ignored it and refused to meet and discuss the issues.
The draft report as amended was adopted, with 17 votes in favour, nine against and four abstentions. MEPs also adopted the mandate to enter into negotiations with the EU council of ministers and the EC with 18 votes in favour, nine votes against and three abstentions. The council plans to adopt its general approach on 23 May, so negotiations at inter-institutional level could still start under the Maltese presidency.
According to the EU pledge, a voluntary scheme that companies such as Nestlé and Ferrero have signed up to, companies won’t advertise to children. The EC thinks that voluntary pledges can work as long as they are sufficiently monitored and go hand in hand with credible sanctions.
The 2015 BMA board of science report, Food for Thought: Promoting Healthy Diets Among Children and Young People, highlights how a range of consumer marketing tactics directly and indirectly impact on children and young people’s knowledge and dietary patterns, and has been vital in our lobbying of those EU officials and MEPs involved in the revision.
The proposed revision of product placement and sponsorship regulations is of some concern. Product placement erodes the distinction between programme and commercial content and should not be allowed for either alcohol or foods high in sugar, fats or salt. The EC’s proposal to liberalise product placement and the draft EP CULT report’s endorsement of this approach undermine the fundamental principle that commercial communications should be readily recognisable. The BMA is working with European partners to retain the existing general prohibition on product placement or to exclude alcohol and foods high in sugar, fats and salt from product placement alongside tobacco and medicinal products. We are also working to secure a similar exclusion for sponsorship.
As there are no EU regulations regarding online advertising or social media, there is an urgent need to develop specific legislative measures to prevent the marketing of alcohol, unhealthy food and drinks to children. The revision provides a perfect opportunity for such action. Over the course of childhood, children spend less time in school than in front of a TV set and or tablets and smartphones. Consequently, an average seven year old will have already watched screen media for more than one full year and by the age of 18 the average young European will have spent a full four years in front of a screen.
On 1 December 2016, the BMA jointly hosted – with other civil society organisations – an event in the EP to promote its views that the revised directive should:
The BMA has also co-signed a letter to S&D group and to CULT MEPs with the messages repeated ad nauseam.
As this legislation could be finalised before the UK’s formal departure (mid-2019 at the earliest) from the EU and become applicable across the country, it’s imperative that we continue to work to ensure that such legislation reflects the concerns of BMA members and not simply those of industry.
Robert Delis is a BMA EU policy officer
Read Food for Thought