Are we selling children & adolescents a lifetime of ill-health? A quick dive into the numbers.

Children around the world are being exposed to advertisements on a huge scale. The numbers are staggering:


  • The average young person in the USA sees 13000–30 000 advertisements just on television each year
  • More than 24 million young people are reached by e-cigarette adverts in the USA
  • 48% of food company websites have designated children’s areas. A survey of 130 food company websites found that 48% had designated children’s areas, featuring a variety of marketing techniques including ‘advergaming’, interactive programmes, branded spokes-characters and tie-ins to others. UNICEF marketing report, pg.15
  • 53-87% of food advertising broadcasts on children’s most watched commercial channels are for unhealthy foods, according to a global study

Ultra-processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol are all major factors in non­-communicable diseases (NCDs), exposure to advertising of these often addictive substances and unhealthy products is also associated with greater consumption. Unhealthy food marketing has been recognised as one of the contributing factors to increasing rates of overweight and obesity. Research from Latin America, showed that exposure to advertising was associated with the purchase of unhealthy or low­ nutritional value foods by children and families with high body mass index and obesity.

“There’s one primary cause of the child obesity pandemic: the marketing of ultra-processed foods.”
Dr Chris van Tulleken

Yesterday Children in All Policies 2030 (CAP-2030) hosted their first webinar on the commercial exploitation of children & adolescents through the marketing of health-harming products, debating the question, are we selling a lifetime of ill-health?

Panellist Dev Sharma, Co-Chair of Bite Back 2030’s Youth Board, discussed a recent exposé by the organisation highlighting young people, in Britain, were exposed to 15 billion junk food ads online in 2019, with exposure increasing during lockdowns. The exposé highlights  “the Government’s proposal for a complete restriction of junk food marketing online would provide 127,000 extra years of healthy life to children who are alive now or who will be born within 25 years”.

Advertising can be even more persuasive when incorporated within TV programmes. A study found that the link between television viewing and poor diet was strongest for children exposed to advertisements embedded within programmes. It is not just during children’s programmes that children are exposed to advertisements between programming.  Research from Australia found children and adolescents were exposed 51 million times to alcohol adverts during Australia’s major televised sports, with 47% of this exposure occurring during the daytime.

“Can we ban that type of advertising? We do have precedent for this…Big Tech should be dealt with how we’ve dealt with Big Tobacco. Children are citizens and children have rights.”
Mutale Nkonde­

Marketing of harmful products to the next generation of consumers builds brand loyalties that can last a lifetime, with lifelong impacts on health. Research also shows that marketing of harmful products can increase and perpetuate health inequalities. African American youth view approximately 50% or more adverts for unhealthy foods than white youth of the same age in the USA. Another study, found that African American and Hispanic youth from Los Angeles were exposed respectively to 4·1 and 3·4 alcohol adverts per day on average, nearly two folds the exposure of non-­Hispanic white youth, exposed to 2·0 advertisements per day. The study also found that girls of all ethnicities were exposed to alcohol advertisements 30% more times than boys.

Detrimental health behaviours acquired at a young age tend to persist into adulthood, with lifelong consequences. Advertising and marketing of harmful and unhealthy products represent an under-appreciated threat to children & adolescents and the global efforts to prevent NCDs. The numbers are staggering.

What should be the main priorities for policymakers and campaigners wanting to address the problem of harmful commercial marketing? Our panel suggest: raising awareness, averting conflicts of interest with industry, specifying nutritional content and improving labelling, and ensuring healthy and affordable food in schools.

“Invest in a whole generation to promote eating that is healthy for children’s bodies and the environment”
Prof. Anthony Costello

Watch the webinar here