In an Israel Struggling With Childhood Obesity, Unhealthy Food Industry Pushes Back at Limiting Ads

Health Ministry wants to limit ads for unhealthy food directed at children under 16, even though young people are now more exposed to ads on social media

Breakfast cereals in a Tel Aviv supermarket
Daniel Tchetchik

Limiting children’s exposure to advertising for unhealthy foods might seem a logical idea in a country like Israel, where childhood obesity is a serious problem.

But as a meeting this week of a government panel addressing the issue showed, food advertising is a big business and opposition to limiting it is intense – not just on the part of food makers but also advertising agencies and the media.

A session of the ministry’s Committee for the Prevention of Harmful Food Advertising saw accusations and counter-accusations hurled across the room. When Dr. Hagai Levine from the Association of Public Health Physicians showed how limits on tobacco advertising reduced smoking, and made the case for doing the same with unhealthy food, Galia Sagi, CEO of the Food Manufacturers Association, stormed out of the room in anger at the comparison.

Food advertising is big business in Israel. Of the top five advertising in the first half of 2017, three were food and drink companies – Strauss group, Central Bottling Company (Coca Cola) and Osem. Food advertising directed at children alone is worth hundreds of millions of shekels annually.

But Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is determined to get Israelis to consume less unhealthy food and to that end wants to impose rules forcing food manufacturers and importers to affix red labels on foods that exceed maximum levels of sodium, sugar or saturated fats.

The government committee that proposed the labeling urged other measures against unhealthy foods, among them limits on advertising, especially to children under 16. Over the summer a second committee was formed to explore the issue.

But Noga Rubinstein, an attorney for Channel 10 and the two Channel 2 franchisees, warned of a “great drama” for both the broadcaster and ad agencies if the state moved ahead with plans to ban the advertising.

Advertising on traditional media like TV is already in the doldrums and with Channel 2 being split into two competing networks, the advertising pie will be fought over by even more competitors, she said. The industry can’t stand another blow from regulators and, if the rules are going to be imposed, they should at least be imposed on all media, not just on commercial television, Rubinstein asserted.

Her case got backing from Health Ministry representatives, who noted that the great majority of Channel 2 viewers are over 18. Younger people are much bigger consumers of Facebook, YouTube and other online media, they found. The best way to limit exposure to ads for unhealthy foods was on social media, they said.

For its part, the Food Manufacturers Association says it wants to avoid a government-imposed ban and favors a voluntary agreement by businesses to place limits on their advertising across all media.

“Our goal is to do what many countries in Europe and the United States do, where the big food companies got together and imposed bans and restrictions on themselves regarding advertising to children,” said Talma Biro, president of the Israel Marketing Association. “The big international companies that operate in Israel, like Pepsi, Coca Cola and Danona, are signed onto a global agreement and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work here.”

In any case, the association argues that the ban should be on advertising up to age 12, not age 16, which is the age limit set by Italy, France and Germany. “Research shows that after age 12 there’s no correlation between advertising bans and obesity,” Biro said.

The Health Ministry has said research shows that voluntary restrictions aren’t effective because the companies themselves have a conflict of interest in observing them. The World Health Organization said it was regulators that should set the limits on children’s digital exposure to high-fat and sodium foods.

With or without the ministry’s support, the industry is moving ahead on voluntary arrangements. On Monday at a conference sponsored by the Israel Marketing Association and Teenk, the biggest agency for children and teen marketing, a group of organizations presented a “Convention for Responsible and Fair Advertising for Youth.”

Yaniv Waizman, Teenk’s owner, said the document came after a year of negotiations between marketing and advertising associations and others, with the backing of the Knesset’s Special Committee for the Rights of the Child.

One food industry executive, who asked not to be named, said the document would help the industry in its push for self-regulation. “Now that there is a convention adopted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, it will be very difficult for the Health Ministry to pass regulations prohibiting advertising,” he said. “This could be another way to remove the sting of regulation.”