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Germany steps up fight against child obesity

An abundance of sugar can pose a real health threat to children

An abundance of sugar can pose a real health threat to children

A chocolate candy with arms, legs, and oversized glasses hurtles down a rollercoaster. A voice says, "It tastes like fun!" before it goes on to talk excitedly about sweepstakes to win free admission to an amusement park. This is a standard commercial for candy on German TV, aired in the afternoon.

If the Green Party's Cem Özdemir has his way, this ad will soon be banned. The German food minister wants no advertising for unhealthy foods aimed at children to appear between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. on TV, radio, and the internet. This would also apply to influencers, for example on YouTube or TikTok. On top of that, billboards advertising sweet, fatty, or salty foods in bright colors are to be banned near schools, kindergartens, and playgrounds.

"We must ensure that children can grow up healthier," Özdemir said when presenting his plans in Berlin earlier this week. This is crucial in the fight against obesity and other diet-related diseases, he argued, before adding that ads for unhealthy foods have been shown to influence children's eating behavior.

A market worth billions

But representatives of the German food industry dispute the idea that a ban on advertising can prevent obesity, among them Carsten Bernoth, managing director of the Association of the German Confectionery Industry (BDSI). As he takes a seat at the table in the BDSI conference room in Bonn for a DW interview, there's no plate with cookies on the table, or any snacks, just a few water bottles.

A ban on advertising will not lead children to eat less candy, says Bernoth, and yet: "Advertising is essential in a market economy. It enables you to take a market share from other competitors." German candy manufacturers reported sales of around €14 billion ($14.8 billion) last year, and they spend about one billion on advertising.

Bernoth fears that Özdemir's plans would lead to an almost complete ban on advertising for his industry, after all, commercials intended for adults but would potentially be seen by children could also fall under the planned ban. "We are arguing that the consumer has a free choice," Bernoth says. "They need to be able to make an informed choice. Information and education are key here. And it's not up to the state to make any stipulations here, or to postulate any bans."

Learning from Chile

So could an advertising ban protect children from unhealthy food or not? Anette Buyken, professor of public health nutrition at Paderborn University, says that the data is not complete. "The main problem is that there are very few countries that implement such measures and really follow up with good effectiveness research," she told DW.

But Buyken cites Chile as a positive example. There, the world's strictest rules for candy advertising aimed at children were put in place in 2016. In addition to a ban on advertising, unhealthy foods must also be labeled with warnings, similar to those for cigarettes. Chilean researchers then immediately collected data on the effectiveness of the measures and found they really changed people's choices, Buyken said.

Now they are investigating whether this change also improves health in the long term. The focus, he says, shouldn't just be on obesity. "The most important thing is to get started, observe, and then adjust if necessary," Buyken added. "We have enough evidence, from Chile and other countries, on how to address something like this."

In many countries, the number of overweight children and adolescents has risen sharply in recent decades. About one in six children in Germany is now overweight or even obese, according to Germany's public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute. Among 11- to 13-year-olds, the figure is even one in five.

COVID pandemic reinforced the trend

The parents of such children often call Andrea Gerschlauer and ask for help. A nutritionist since 2018, her certificate from the German Society for Nutrition (DGE) is hanging on the wall of her consultation room in her practice in Bonn. In the corner of the room, there's a toy kitchen where young children can play, and on a magnetic board, there's an image of the nutrition pyramid: Plenty of unsweetened drinks as a base, lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grain products and potatoes on top, moderate amounts of milk, meat, fish and egg, and right at the top: a small measure of sweets and fatty foods.

Gerschlauer places a beverage carton on the table, marketed as a "thirst quencher," with bright fruit on the packaging. "Tell me how many sugar cubes are in here," she asks, before answering the question herself: "18! That won't quench your thirst. Products like these really con consumers."

Gerschlauer hopes the ban on advertising unhealthy foods in Germany will come soon. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, some children have gained a lot of weight in a relatively short period of time, she argued: "I see a connection with the fact that children have been watching more television. There's a lot of snacking when you watch TV. And when you add the effect of commercials to that, it's very hard for kids to break free from the thought of sweets." Children from socially deprived families are said to be particularly affected by this trend.

Gerschlauer distinguishes between the internal and external factors that lead to decisions about whether or not to eat something. The biggest factor is the child's family - parents are role models and are responsible for everyday food selection. "But I am convinced that small children's brains are especially influenced by advertising. I myself

can still recite advertising slogans from my childhood — and that was 50 years ago," said Gerschlauer. "That sticks."

Gerschlauer wants new measures to go even further than a ban on advertising. She advocates higher taxes on unhealthy foods — modeled on the taxes for tobacco and cigarettes — or a reduction in VAT for foods that are beneficial to health, such as vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. "Otherwise, we're going to have a huge problem in 30 years' time," she says. "When these overweight children grow up, they are at risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other diet-related diseases. There's a lot of suffering and high costs coming."

Opposition from the FDP

But Özdemir's advertising ban is already likely to have a hard time getting through parliament, or even though the coalition government. In their coalition agreement from 2021, the three parties agreed to ban advertising for unhealthy things "in broadcasting and media formats for under 14-year-olds." But now the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) are digging in their heels. Özdemir's proposal means "more bureaucracy, more bans, less innovation and less quality of life," Gero Hocker, agricultural policy spokesman for the FDP in the Bundestag, posted on Twitter this week.

And what do children and young people in Germany think about the planned advertising ban? If you ask children of daycare and elementary school age, you might get the feeling you're meeting a hardcore sugar lobby. But many teenagers aren't keen on the ban either.

Like the teenagers enjoying their lunch break in Bonn's Südstadt district on this sunny day in March: They leave the schoolyard in a throng, cross the street to the supermarket and after a while, they return, holding chocolate cookies, canned lemonade, chips, and sweet pastries.

Noah, 18, follows the group, carrying no candy. "I think advertising for unhealthy things should be banned," he tells DW. "You just have to look at how many people are overweight these days - I see it every day at school." The young man in the black jacket is in a hurry; his class is about to start. "I'm an athlete. I try to give up sweets," he says. And those chocolate candies from the commercials? They may taste like fun, but they're made up of 52% sugar, he points out.

This article was originally written in German.

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