Never, not even in my wildest dreams, have I had any realistic hope of seeing in Spain what the Ministry of Consumer Affairs had announced in October 2021: after almost 20 years of looking the other way, the administration announced that it would roll up its sleeves to the one aimed at minors Tightly and effectively regulate advertising of products that are objectively unhealthy or not healthy at all (I refuse to call them food). Most of us who care about nutrition in the society we live in are stunned: happily stunned to be precise.
Finally, one of the most necessary and requested actions by professionals in the sector should be taken to address a problem in which Spain is a leader in its environment: childhood obesity. Let’s remember that we have the dubious privilege of being the third-best among EU countries with the highest relative rates of obesity and overweight among boys and girls aged six to nine. The first positions are occupied by Cyprus, Greece, Spain and Italy: the Mediterranean backlash of the matter is enough to compel us to look into it.
The Department of Consumer Affairs then stated that to implement this regulation, it would use the nutrient profiles established by the WHO in 2015, which we explained here in 2016. With this system, and regardless of the nutritional values of each product, there would be entire product ranges – I refuse to call them food again – that would be banned from the media advertising grid and even from channels like YouTube, Tik Tok or Instagram. For example all confectionery, cookies, ice cream, soft drinks, energy drinks and juices: The ministry announced this on social networksand nutritionists clapped in our ears.
However, last week dark clouds gathered around the implementation of this measure: The Ministry of Agriculture took a step and opposes this regulation. It is no coincidence that the FIAB, the employers’ association representing the main manufacturers of ultra-processed products whose interests would be seriously affected by this regulation, also took a position against it from minus one minute.
Corporate capture, a common scourge of politics
In this life there are two great engines that guide important decisions, one is love and the other is money; and if that measure is ultimately discarded, it is not for love. Much less for the love of childhood and her health: of course Journalist Laura Caorsi told it rhetorically on her Twitter account. This is an issue older than the black thread: in 2013, then-WHO Director-General Margaret Chan distanced herself with some harsh words in a public speech, noting that the economic interests of the food industry distorted public policy Health.
In this speech, Dr. Chan’s pulse didn’t as he pointed to the origin of the dangers threatening public health policies: primarily the ultra-processed food and alcohol multinationals. Concretely and literally, he explained that it is the companies in the industry who, in order not to damage their balance sheets, create companies within their own group with a “friendly face” – pressure groups or lobbyists – they promise themselves – regulate, file lawsuits and fund “research studies” that end up falsifying the evidence and misleading the consumer.
It is the so-called corporate capture of public health, a concept that Dr. Miguel-Ángel Royo-Bordonada explained in detail in this document. In short: “Corporate capture is the deliberate process by which political decisions respond to a specific, private interest to the detriment of the public interest. The result is unfair regulation or lack of regulation when necessary to protect the common good. It doesn’t get any clearer.
Another example of this capture, apart from the case that concerns us when it ends up not thriving, we find in the seeming impossibility of moving forward with an anti-alcohol law – don’t let the name fool you, it actually is the harvest of the lobby on duty – in 20 years, although four bills have been tabled during that time and these have been proposed by leaders of different political persuasions. None thrived. Industry 4 – Public Health 0.
The famous and shameful self-regulation to flee from
The industry concerned almost always offers the same solution when regulation threatens to restrict its “freedom”: self-regulation. In order to understand each other, self-regulation is an alternative method to real regulation, where the food industry agrees with the administration that they will comply with the rules they write themselves and, if necessary, also control and punish violations. .
While that sounds very good, it’s still the armed wing that accomplishes the corporate conquest already described. In the area that concerns us, the self-regulation that the sector enjoys has a name and surname: PAOS Code. A 2005 national self-regulatory system for food advertising to children that has seen minimal but pompous updates in 18 years; to those ineffective. A code that neither avoids nor enforces despite constant violations by signers (that’s the “auto” part of it).
The PAOS Code is also a voluntary compliance regulation, where adhering to it is no guarantee of compliance with anything; For this reason, published studies on its effects describe it as absolutely ineffective. Therefore, as I said in that editorial of Atención Primaria magazine back then, allowing self-regulation in relation to food advertising aimed at children and young people is a toast to the sun: it can be very pretty, it can be very gimmicky, be open grab the news of many informative spaces and headlines … but it’s useless. Worse than doing nothing because of the opportunity cost of giving the image that something is being done, that something is legitimate, and so on.
You can’t always do the same thing and get different results.
That self-regulation – at least in Spain – doesn’t work is a fact, not an opinion. In fact, only countries with legal regulations have managed to reduce the advertising pressure for unhealthy products aimed at children, and the PAOS Code is being set outside our borders as an example of what should not be done.
If the executive has the sincere will to bend the curve of childhood obesity in Spain, it must be done with something different than what it has been doing since 2005, to no avail and to the delight of producers. I’m not saying they’re happy about childhood obesity, but they’re happy that they don’t have to endure regulations that have the force of law and are therefore accountable to no one.
Following Consumption’s announcement that it would regulate advertising by decree, President Sánchez promised to tackle the problem of childhood obesityand a few months later the National Strategic Plan to Reduce
Childhood obesity (2022 – 2030). In strategy line number five – ensuring the protection of children’s health – action number 37 literally includes the intention to “develop regulation of food and drink marketing”.
The problem of childhood obesity in Spain is very serious. Here are some of the numbers that the above report offers:
- 41% of girls aged six to nine are overweight or obese, compared to 42% of boys. Despite this, seven out of ten overweight school children are perceived by their parents to be of normal weight.
- Obesity among children and adolescents has doubled in the last 20 years.
- Child obesity rates are twice as high among boys and girls living in households with fewer resources.
- 55% of boys and girls with obesity are adolescents with obesity. Conversely, 80% of obese adolescents are obese adults.
To Dr. To quote Chan again: “Ending childhood obesity is one of the greatest challenges facing the international community of this century […] and industry should have no voice when making public health decisions of this magnitude.” We shouldn’t care what our Department of Agriculture thinks, possibly under pressure from certain sectors. In any case, if the economic issue is to be taken into account in the decision-making process, the strategic plan itself states that for every euro invested in obesity prevention in Spain, six would be reimbursed. I leave it there.
Juan revenge He is a nutritionist, biologist, consultant, professor at the University of San Jorge and member of the Spanish Foundation of Nutritionists (FEDN). He is the author of the books Hands on the table and Slim me down, lie to me.