AVMSD: how to liberate children and young people from unhealthy marketing

The revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) is a milestone opportunity to free minors from the marketing of health-harmful products. The Commission’s proposal makes notable steps forward in this direction, but still falls far short of putting health first. Alcohol and unhealthy food, given their attractiveness (or should we say addictiveness), should in principle not require any advertising whatsoever. But that is probably only possible in a society where considerations of long-term prosperity and sustainability trump short-term commercial gain. At present, maintaining the food and drink industry’s freedom of commercial expression and providing financing for television programmes occurs at the expense of subjecting youth to deceitful messaging and undermining health systems, while taxpayers foot the rising costs of diet- and alcohol-induced diseases.

With regard to advertising, the Commission’s proposal is marked by a tension between instruments and aims. The new stated aim of the proposed Directive is to “effectively limit the exposure of children and minors” to the advertisement of alcoholic beverages and foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). Reference to exposure is a major breakthrough compared to the current text and is aligned with the evidence that what counts is exposure to messaging – a quantitative indicator – and not just whether advertising is “targeted at” minors – as used in today’s Directive.

The instrument by which the Commission proposes to tackle exposure is through self- and co-regulation (SCR). This immediately sets off the alarm bells, as voluntary, industry-led codes of conduct fail to deliver verifiable gains for public health. A study on the effectiveness of SCR commissioned for the revision points this out, namely that most of the national schemes reviewed lack SMART, verifiable objectives, proper monitoring and evaluation systems and no sanctions – the ‘stick behind the door’. With a set-up like that, and lacking clear objectives, no wonder studies find that voluntary approaches routinely fail across all sectors.

The Commission tried to counter this by requiring codes of conduct to set clear and unambiguous objectives, have regular and independent monitoring and evaluation and if needed to apply sanctions. This move away from pure self-regulation is long overdue. At the latest meeting of the ‘Community of Practice for better self- and co-regulation,’ it was recognised that self-regulation does not actually exist: once a certain sector faces societal expectations, the conversation naturally moves beyond pure self-organisation. In this light it would be better to remove self-regulation from the policy vocabulary as a whole: it does not work in areas where public interest is at stake.

Overall however, the proposed measures do not live up to the aim of limiting exposure of children and young people to marketing of health-harmful products. What is needed is the right ‘policy mix’, covering both national and EU regulatory measures and codes of conduct which are really enforceable.  A level playing field should be set up across Europe with a watershed from 7am to 11pm for both alcohol and HFSS food advertising. National governments should furthermore be encouraged to apply additional measures, including by regulatory means, as the potential effectiveness of co-regulation significantly depends on the national policy culture. The objectives of codes of conduct must in any case be public health-relevant, ensure rigorous compliance, and be independently monitored to ensure that encouraging such codes is not another grave mistake.

Furthermore, what this revision reveals is that we are shockingly late in addressing the booming internet and social media marketing arena. While children and young people are increasingly tuned into smart phones and tablets, and less so to television, the AVMSD is only now entering the space of video-sharing platforms, but without extending its provisions to marketing. Examples of regulatory good practices are urgently needed at national level so they can be applied at the European scale in the near future as well.

EPHA’s summary position on the AVMSD proposal is available here.

By Nikolai Pushkarev, Policy Coordinator Food, Drink & Agriculture, EPHA

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