According to the Ministry of Public Health, the number of obese children in Thailand has increased as of February this year. Around 13% of children aged between six and 14 fall victim to obesity while an estimated 13% of adolescents aged 15 to 18 suffer from the disease. Meanwhile, the percentage of obese children has risen from 4-5% to 9-10% for those below the age of five.
In a recent forum titled "The Impact Of Food And Beverage Marketing Strategies On Children's Behaviour" organised by the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University, Jagkrapan Janchatree, an adolescent development officer at Unicef Thailand, said the obesity rate in Thailand has rapidly increased in both urban and rural areas, affecting people of all social status.
"A study indicated that the obesity rate among children aged six to 14 was 5% in 2009, but 14% in 2016. People of all social backgrounds consume food that is high in fat, salt and sugar, which are just a few factors that lead to obesity. Obesity increases the risk of non-communicable diseases including Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Studies have shown that overweight children are five times at risk of becoming overweight adults," said Jagkrapan.
The forum was organised to inform audiences how the government has responded to the rise in childhood obesity, which is associated with exposure to marketing and advertising of foods with high fat, salt and sugar content. To control advertisements of such food and beverages, the Department of Health has collaborated with organisations and specialists from various fields to draft a regulation called "Controls On The Marketing Of Food And Non-Alcoholic Beverages Affecting Children's Health Act", which aims to prohibit the inappropriate marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children.
There is an association between food consumption and advertising. Nongnuch Jindarattanaporn, a lecturer at the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University, explained that many studies have been conducted by the WHO and Unicef on the impact of food and beverage marketing strategies on children's behaviour.
"These studies show that after children and adolescents see food and beverage products in advertisements, they remember the brands. This recognition influences their decision-making and purchases. Young people often purchase products they are familiar with. While children aged three to six ask their parents to purchase products for them, children aged seven and older can make their own purchases independently. Consuming food high in fat, salt and sugar puts young people at risk for dental cavities and NCDs. A report in Thailand even indicated a case of a four-year-old who had developed Type 2 diabetes," said Nongnuch.
As a lecturer at the Institute for Population and Social Research, Nongnuch conducted several research projects regarding the promotion of products high in fat, salt or sugar. One of the research projects involved collecting data on advertisements on YouTube and television during prime time. During weekdays, young people spend the most time on media platforms from 4pm to 8pm while on weekends, they spend time on media from 6am to 10am.
"The Research teams reviewed the brands that advertised during prime time and then examined the labels of these brands to identify those that contained high levels of fat, sugar or salt [HFSS]. We discovered that 95% of advertising products were HFSS," said Nongnuch.
The advertising content presents these products as delicious despite their excessive saltiness, sweetness or fat content. Advertisements often focus only on one or a few beneficial ingredients.
"For instance, drinking yoghurt highlights the presence of bacteria that can benefit consumers, but does not mention the high sugar content. Seaweed snacks present the inclusion of zinc which is a useful nutrient, but do not advertise the high salt content. Drinking yoghurt products also usually feature attractive models or celebrities in their advertisements. Some snack promotions include a card, toy or a prize in the packaging to attract young consumers," said Nongnuch.
In addition to food and beverage advertisements on YouTube and television, in 2018, Nongnuch conducted a research project on the Facebook fan pages of 30 food brands, each of which had more than a million followers.
"We discovered that instant food brands usually post discounts or buy one get one promotions. The administrators of these fan pages consistently engage with their followers, creating significant interaction. Meanwhile, administrators of pages on Facebook dedicated to sugary products post product photos and use many hashtags. Administrators and followers on Facebook of sugary beverages and instant food often communicate and persuade each other to consume these products," Nongnuch explained.
"In our latest study conducted in 2022, we discovered that when users liked a product, AI would generate content that matched the users' interests and that kind of content or similar would appear on the user's personal Facebook feed. With this technology, advertisements can reach users more directly than in the past."
The draft regulation proposed by the Department of Health includes many measures to prevent young people from being targeted by marketing and advertisements for HFSS products.
Some key provisions of this proposed regulation are as follows:
- Section 3 is aimed at protecting children under the age of 18 from food and beverage marketing that impacts their health.
- Section 14 states that food labels must not employ tactics to attract children, such as using cartoon characters or celebrities.
- Section 17 mandates the control of advertisements on all channels, including television, radio, online platforms and public transportation.
- Section 16 indicates that elementary and secondary schools will take measures to control the sales of unhealthy foods within the premises.
- Section 20 specifies that control measures will include restriction on donations of food and beverages that are high in fat, salt and sugar content in schools.
The regulation of advertisements for unhealthy food and beverages has been implemented in many countries.
"In Quebec, Canada, advertisements for high fat, high salt and high sugar food and beverages are banned on all media channels. The UK prohibits unhealthy food and beverage advertisements on traditional media, the internet, game devices and cinemas. Peru, Turkey, South Korea and Singapore prohibit high fat, high sugar and high salt advertisements on TV and radio stations. South Korea, Hungary and Brazil also prohibit the sale of high fat, high sugar and high salt food in schools," said Nongnuch.
"After these laws were implemented, households with children in the UK decreased their expenditures on high fat, high sugar and high salt foods food by £14.90 [656 baht] and expenditures on sugary beverages decreased by £5.60 per quarter. In South Korea, a research project in 2009 stated that 1,296 advertisements for high fat, high salt and high sugar were broadcast on TV. In 2010, the TV advertisements for these unhealthy foods decreased to only 243. However, unhealthy food advertisements shifted to online platforms."
In May 2023, Thailand's Department of Health organised a public hearing to listen to people from civil society organisations, government agencies and the food and beverage industries and received positive responses.
It will take some time before any law banning unhealthy food and beverages is officially launched. In the meantime, Nongnuch suggested that the Ministry of Public Health and the Office of the Basic Education Commission should encourage schools to prohibit the sale of snacks and sugary beverages on their premises.
"Aside from parents, communities should take responsibility for children's well-being. Schools should ban the sale of unhealthy food. However, when children are outside of school, they still can purchase unhealthy food and beverages. Thailand may consider a regulation similar to South Korea's which prohibits shops within 300m of schools from selling unhealthy food and drinks to young people."