Adverts for sweets, crisps and chocolates should face restrictions in order to limit their influence on children, a study commissioned by the government has concluded.
The EPELI study carried out by researchers from Helsinki and Tampere universities, as well as the Finnish Environmental Institute (Syke) and private consultancy firm Ahjo Communications, mapped marketing campaigns for unhealthy foods in Finland, with 13-17-year-olds particularly at risk of being influenced by it, the researchers said on Thursday.
The study recommended that the Food Act should be amended to include new and stricter restrictions on marketing unhealthy food to under-18s online.
Anne Repo, marketing director of Finnish confectioner Fazer, reacted to the findings with concern. She told Yle it would be "quite challenging" if the government pursued a strict age limit on adverts for sweets and chocolate.
What did the study find?
According to the researchers, regulating the marketing of unhealthy food improves child health and promotes not only the interests of the child but also boosts the health of the wider population over time.
"We need a clear playbook to reduce the exposure of minors to unhealthy foods on social media. Protecting the health of children and young people is our adults' responsibility," State Secretary with the Ministry of Family Affairs and Social Services Eila Mäkipää said.
The study also found that poorer households and those with a lower education level tended to purchase a higher proportion of unhealthy foods. For this reason, tighter regulation could also promote better health equality, said project leader Mikael Fogelholm, Professor of Nutrition at the University of Helsinki.
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Social media marketing campaigns, online games and food packaging were areas of particular concern, the study said, with the researchers finding that current guidelines on marketing to children prepared by the Consumer Ombudsman and the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) in 2015 were outdated.
"If I were 8 years old, I probably wouldn't know a Tiktok from an advertisement. I'm no longer influenced by social media, but when I was younger, when I watched a YouTuber, I'd be like: "Mum, can you buy that?" seventh-grader Anastasia Yeremkina told Yle.
"The marketing environment has been revolutionised since the publication of our joint recommendation. However, concerns about the marketing of unhealthy foods to children remain the same. The next step would be to achieve more effective legislation and self-regulation," said Consumer Ombudsman Katri Väänänen.
The researchers also recommended that Finland introduce a new nutrition guidance system that would highlight healthier options for consumers. More effective nutritional profiling would also help policymakers working on things like so-called "sin taxes" on unhealthy food and drinks, the researchers said.
Marleena Tanhuanpää, director of the Finnish Food and Drink Industries' Federation, told Yle that the food industry takes marketing to children seriously.
"We believe that marketing in Finland is quite responsible and there are hardly any excesses. In that sense, going straight to legislation seems rather excessive and unnecessary," she said.
Tanhuanpää also questioned the feasibility of lawmakers deciding what is and is not "unhealthy".
"It would also mean a huge need for definition, starting with what is defined as unhealthy. After all, the diet as a whole also includes gourmet products," she added
Fazer marketing director Repo told Yle that she would rather companies self-regulate than face legal obligations.
"The best way forward would be to review and strengthen self-regulation guidelines among the industry and all follow the same guidelines," she said.
Internal food industry guidelines currently direct companies to reduce advertising to young children.
"In Finland, companies have been paying particular attention to this, especially for younger children. Perhaps this group of early teens and teenagers has been slightly forgotten. They have, as it were, been left unprotected or at least less protected," said Elina Närvänen, Assistant Professor of Services and Commerce at the University of Tampere.
The findings released on Thursday are preliminary results. The final report is due to be released in October.