6 June 2024

Thailand is drafting a law to control the advertising of unhealthy food, in a bid to combat soaring rates of obesity in children.

“The draft law will be presented to the Public Health Ministry later this year in the hope that it will take effect next year,” said Dr Saipin Chotivichien, director of the Nutrition Bureau in the ministry’s Health Department.

Obesity has doubled in Thailand over the past two decades, according to a 2020 survey by Mahidol University. During that period, the percentage of obese children in the one-to-five age group has shot up from 5.8 to 11.4 percent. The percentage of obese kids aged five to 14 has risen even further, from 5.8 to 13.9 percent. A similar upward trend was found among 15 to 18-year-olds.

“Based on Public Health Ministry data as of February this year, 13.2 percent of Thais aged between 15 and 18 are obese. This figure is high,” conceded Dr Sarawut Boonsuk, deputy director-general of the Health Department.

Thailand has the third-highest rate of obese children among ASEAN countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Adverts blamed

Sarawut said advertisements targeting children have played a huge role in Thailand’s growing obesity problem. Last year, Thailand’s food and beverage industry spent a whopping 18.85 billion baht on advertisements and promotions aimed at luring consumers.

Targeted by a torrent of online promotions via smartphones and other screens, children in the digital era are far more exposed to advertising than in previous generations.

“A child is strongly influenced if he or she sees the same ad promoting a snack four times in an hour. They will definitely ask their parents to buy that snack for them,” Sarawut said.

He added that savory snacks are a particular problem, fostering children’s addiction to sweet, salty and fatty flavors. Once addicted, they start putting on weight and heading down the path to obesity.

“Obesity comes with the risk of various chronic diseases and adverse health impacts in the long run,” the doctor warned.

How will the new law help?

The new law, which is backed by both Sarawut and Saipin, is officially known as the “Bill for Protection of Children from Unhealthy Food and Beverages”. Designed to offer tangible protection from food and drinks that threaten kids’ health, the law specifies safe limits of sugar, fat and sodium in seven categories of food and beverages. These are meals, convenience foods, savory snacks, baked/fried/steamed items, sweets and ice cream, packaged drinks, and dairy products.

“The categorization is based on the WHO’s nutrient profiles,” Saipin said.

The draft law also states that controls must be imposed on advertising of items that are high in fat, sugar and salt. For instance, manufacturers and importers of foods or beverages deemed unhealthy for children will not be permitted to use text or techniques that kids may find attractive.

The draft law will also give officials the authority to inspect and ban advertisements deemed to be violating the law.

However, punishment under the law would be limited, with those caught violating restrictions on advertisements only facing fines, and not jail sentences. Violating the order of a relevant official will be punishable by a maximum fine of 10,000 baht. Meanwhile, fines ranging from 100,000 to 300,000 baht will be applied if violations directly breach restrictions on the marketing of food or beverages deemed unhealthy for children.

Food industry up in arms

Numerous businesses in the food and beverage industry have aired concerns about the draft law. They argue that its enforcement may “restrict competition” in the private sector and infringe on adults’ right to buy what they want.

The businesses argued fiercely against the proposed law at forums and online during the government’s opinion-gathering process, which concluded on June 30.

“Food and beverage manufacturers can continue producing and continue promoting their products, provided it is not detrimental to children’s health,” Saipin said.

She explained that only food and beverages high in salt, fat and sugar will face advertising restrictions.

Also, only food products with labels will come under the scope of this legislation, which means items produced by fast-food outlets or restaurants will not be covered.

“Still, with these restrictions, demand for unhealthy choices will naturally reduce. Consumers aged below 18 can be easily influenced,” she said. For instance, if some snacks are distributed for free at their schools, children will lean towards those and consume them for the rest of their lives.

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Hope for healthier choices

Saipin hopes once this draft law is enforced, food and beverage businesses will try harder to develop healthy choices.

She said relevant authorities have been trying to campaign for healthy food with the launch of the “healthier choice” logo several years ago, but with little impact.

“We have tried voluntary measures, but that has barely worked. Only 10% of players in the private sector have applied for our logo over the past five years. So, we think it’s time to resort to mandatory measures,” Saipin said.

Measures used outside Thailand

On July 3, WHO released “Policies to Protect Children from the Harmful Impact of Food Marketing” to provide guidelines for countries across the world to address the threat of unhealthy foods and beverages.

However, even before these guidelines were released, several countries had already put in place measures to prevent unhealthy food and drinks from reaching children.

In Britain, the promotion of food and beverages high in fat, sugar and sodium at educational institutes is discouraged. Laws also control their advertisement in non-broadcast media like print, online channels and social media platforms.

The British government has also considered banning multi-buy promotions such as 3 for 2 or buy one, get one free, on unhealthy food products at supermarkets.

Chile, meanwhile, has banned the use of cartoon characters or toys to promote unhealthy food and drinks. Since the ban went into effect, Tony the Tiger was removed from the packaging of Kellogg’s cereal products.

In South Korea, some control measures have been applied to broadcast media, but findings show that businesses evade restrictions by promoting their products online instead.

By Thai PBS World