The revolution in food labeling, which the Health Ministry brought about during the last legislative session, was good news for public health. Starting in January, Israel will become one of the only countries in the world to have adopted a labeling system that warns clearly and graphically against consuming foods that are high in sugar, sodium or saturated fat. The ministry’s ability to resist the enormous pressure exerted on it by the food industry was also praiseworthy.
But the second part of the reform scored an own goal this week. This portion was supposed to restrict advertising for unhealthful food that targets children and teens, the most important group at which the reform is aimed. Yet the Health Ministry announced this week that it is in effect capitulating to the manufacturers of unhealthy food.
In a letter to food manufacturers and advertisers, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said he will let them submit to voluntary advertising restrictions in the form of a covenant rather than subjecting them to a mandatory advertising ban. Moreover, the age range for which Litzman said advertising must be limited is much narrower than the committee that drafted the reform had proposed. The restrictions will apply only to children up to age 12 rather than 16.
This concession has serious implications. Obesity is a risk factor in many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, blood vessel disorders, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer. Obesity is also linked to higher mortality rates and shorter life expectancy. The Health Ministry itself explained clearly why it’s important to restrict advertisements for unhealthy foods aimed at children: “There is unequivocal proof that childhood obesity is influenced by marketing tactics for foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and salt.” According to ministry data, a fifth of all Israeli first graders are overweight, and by seventh grade, the proportion jumps to one-third.
The Health Ministry knows that self-regulation of the type the food industry demanded and Litzman approved is destined to fail. Most of the food companies have signed previous covenants, which have been violated time after time. The relevant professional organizations, including the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and the Israel Ambulatory Pediatric Association, have warned repeatedly that the foxes must not be allowed to guard the henhouse, but the companies’ economic might has trumped common sense.
It’s not only the food industry that sought to fight the “evil decree” of restricting ads for unhealthy food aimed at children, but also the advertising and media industries. Food manufacturers are among Israel’s biggest advertisers, so any restrictions on them would have major economic ramifications. They can now breathe a sigh of relief. Without binding regulations, they can continue to persuade children to consume unhealthy food without let or hindrance. It’s a pity the ministry has helped sabotage an innovative and important reform that it initiated.