BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei plans to ban junk food advertisements aimed at children to combat rising obesity after more than half of food-related billboard ads promoted unhealthy food and beverages.

The health ministry on Monday launched the Code of Responsible Marketing of Food and Beverages to Children in Brunei Darussalam, which spells out food advertising guidelines that may be made mandatory “after a suitable period of time”.

Under the Code, all ads promoting sugar-sweetened beverages, energy drinks, syrups as well as items classified as desserts such as cakes, biscuits and pastries are not permitted.

Health minister YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar said advertisers are currently not required to comply with the Code, but strongly encouraged to follow the guidelines.

“This Code will be implemented in phases on various advertising and marketing platforms such as printed media on billboards, posters, newspapers and magazines, during exhibitions, in cinemas, news websites as well as local radio and television channels.

“It is hoped that the Code can be mandated formally after a suitable period of time,” he added.

There are currently no regulations or laws on marketing of food and beverages directed at children, but some advertisements are being regulated through a number of law provisions.

The Code aims to ensure food operators and franchises work with advertising agencies to practise responsible marketing of food and beverages to children, said Dr Hjh Norhayati Hj Md Kassim, head of Health Promotion Centre.

She said most of the food and beverage ads belong to the unhealthy category, adding that it is a challenge for public health officials to devise measures that promote healthy lifestyle practices.

Earlier in 2017, the government had imposed a tax on sugary drinks as the number of patients with chronic diseases continued to grow.

Childhood obesity rate increasing every year

The Code is one of the ministry’s Strategic Plan 2019-2023 initiatives and in line with the World Health Organization’s recommendations in tackling child obesity.

From 1997 to 2016, the obesity rate has more than doubled from 12 percent to 28 percent, according to government figures.

Nearly 20 percent of adolescents are obese and the same worrying trends are seen in younger children with a one percent increase in the prevalence of obesity every year since 2009.

A December 2020 survey found that parents and guardians saw and heard 970 junk food ads compared to 800 commercials promoting healthy food in a month, the health minister said.

The study, which involved 183 parents as well as 140 companies in the F&B and advertising industries, indicated that social media was the most frequently used platform to advertise junk food, followed by billboards.

The vast majority of respondents believe that inappropriate advertising of food and beverages can contribute to rising childhood obesity.

Minister of Health YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham (C, first row) in a group photo with other government officials. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said almost all surveyed parents agreed that the government should regulate the advertising of food and beverage high in salt, sugar and saturated fat to children.

More than a quarter of schools (28.4%) advertised unhealthy food and beverages on school grounds, and mostly through pamphlets, findings from the 2016 Health Promoting School Survey showed.

Another 2014 study by the Health Promotion Centre revealed that over half of food-related billboard ads were on cheap ‘unhealthy food and beverages’ placed at strategic areas, including commercial shopping areas or near traffic light junctions.

MoH sets three guiding principles on food advertising

Dr Hjh Norhayati said the Code covers three main guiding principles for food businesses in promoting ads to children.

The first principle states that all marketing activities targeted at children must observe a sense of social responsibility.

One of the guidelines under the first principle will see the banning of food and beverage commercials during certain hours, from 6.30am to 7.30am, 11.30am to 1.30pm and 4pm to 6pm.

Cinemas will also be prohibited from showing junk food ads before and after movies watched by children under 14 years old (with or without adult).

Under the second principle, all marketing aimed at children should not make use of children’s credulity, loyalty, vulnerability or lack of knowledge and experience or use fear to mislead or deceive them.

“Marketing on food high in sugar should not claim to be “low fat” or “fat free” which could mislead the consumer to believe the food is low in energy or beneficial to health.”

The final guiding principle bans popular personalities, including child actors from promoting food that undermines a healthy diet.

The health ministry will start holding public information sessions this month to raise awareness on the new food advertising guidelines, Dr Hjh Norhayati said.