The RD's perspective

Mexico restricts junk food ads; time for rethink on advertising?

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

Andy Bellatti: “We are way overdue, in this country in particular, to have a conversation on the relentless marketing and advertising the food industry employs.”
Andy Bellatti: “We are way overdue, in this country in particular, to have a conversation on the relentless marketing and advertising the food industry employs.”

Related tags Junk food Nutrition

Mexico announced last week that it was restricting television advertising on high-calorie food and soda in an effort to stem the rising tide of obesity. Registered dietitians weigh in on the impact of the measure, which is the farthest any country has gone to restrict advertising. 

All told, 40% of commercials for soft drinks, confectionery products and chocolates will be pulled from TV in favor of products that "meet nutritional standards", according to the Mexican health ministry. The ads will be banned on network and cable TV between 2:30 and 7:30 pm on weekdays and between 7:30 am and 7:30 pm on weekends.

Restrictions will also be imposed on similar ads shown in movie theaters.

“Advertising has one goal: to raise awareness and get people to buy more of the food being advertised,”​ Lisa Young, RD, PhD of New York University, told FoodNavigator-USA. “The junk food industry has a lot of money behind it. Why do we want to promote a country that’s already struggling with high rates of obesity and diabetes to eat more junk food? The logical first step is to limit advertising and promote healthy food.”

Approximately 70% of adults and 30% of children in Mexico are obese or overweight, just slightly lower than US figures. Out of the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mexico has the highest rate of diabetics.

“Mexico has an enormous problem with overweight and the resulting type 2 diabetes. Its rates of both are among the highest in the world,” ​Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It also has a publicly funded national health system that will go bankrupt if diabetes can’t be controlled​.”

Indeed, the National Academy of Medicine estimates that if current trends continue,Mexico’s obesity problem will cost its public health care system upwards of $8 billion by 2017.

Ban appears to be targeting childhood obesity, but prime time left out

Because the ban covers hours when kids are likely to be watching TV, Nestle said she sees the restriction as targeting childhood obesity in particular—and will likely make it easier for parents to promote healthier eating for their kids.

But Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, said he was disappointed that the ban didn’t target prime time weeknight hours (until about 10:30 pm), when advertisers are jockeying for the most eyeballs.

“That being said, I think any policy that tries to limit marketing in any capacity is fantastic,” ​he said. “We are way overdue, in this country in particular, to have a conversation on the relentless marketing and advertising the food industry employs.”

From a policy standpoint, Mexico is fast becoming a leader in the fight against obesity. Last year, the Mexican government put a higher tax on high-calorie food and drinks and, starting in 2015, will require food and drink manufacturers to label the health contents of their products. 

Other countries that have implemented advertising bans include the UK, Norway and the Quebec province in Canada—which all banned junk food ads in children's television, though this hasn’t stopped the ads from appearing during so-called “family programming”.

An ad ban in the US? Not as long as corporations are considered 'people'

In the US, many major food and beverage companies signed on to the Council of Better Business Bureau’s Children Food and Beverage Advertising initiative, agreeing to cease all ads to children under 12. The American Beverage Association also established a policy of only advertising “juice, water and milk-based drinks” to audiences predominantly under the age of 12. The ABA’s Global Policy on Marketing to Children covers a range of paid third-party media, including TV, radio, internet, print, phone messaging and cinema, according to its website.

Still, research has shown that the majority of advertising kids are exposed to is for unhealthy products. (See here​.)

Policy efforts aimed at curbing unhealthy behaviors in the US—whether through restricting unhealthy ads to kids​, capping large portion sizes​, taxing​ or adding warning labels​ to sugary beverages—have all been met with strong resistance from food and beverage companies and the trade groups representing them.

Even US laws favoring free speech and corporate personhood ensure that a government-imposed limit on advertising likely won't happen anytime soon, Nestle noted. “Not with this Congress and Supreme Court,"​ she said. "As long as both continue to consider corporations to be ‘persons’ and commercial speech to be covered by the First Amendment.”​ 

Mexico ban raises awareness that there are other tactics to try

Dr. Young was more optimistic, finding comparisons to the tobacco industry. “Look what happened with cigarette smoking in New York,” ​she said. “You can’t smoke in restaurants and you can’t smoke in Central Park anymore! You never know. Unfortunately ​[Mayor Bloomberg’s] soda cap didn’t go through. But it raised awareness, and there are other tactics to try to make healthier food the easier choice for people.”

Bellatti added that interventions like that in Mexico, Canada and Scandanavia will help establish a baseline of evidence-based information on which to build a case for the benefits of limiting marketing of unhealthy foods.

“In the case of those countries and provinces where they have tackled marketing to children, that can provide evidence-based information that we can start citing down the road when policy is being debated. These kinds of interventions can yield results that advocates can use as evidence that what they’re advocating for has the potential to make a difference.

But in the meantime, a little more public dissent couldn’t hurt, he added.

“When celebrities are doing soda campaigns, that needs to become heavily criticized publicly,” ​he said. “Let’s face it: from a celebrity standpoint, it’s all about PR, so the last thing you want is for the public to turn on you. That’s also one way to take away that glamorous aspect to it.

“Also, research has clearly shown that education not sufficient. I’m not a big fan of saying, we need campaigns that tell people that soda’s bad. The issue is that soda is ubiquitous and affordable. That’s more of a systemic issue that needs to be address​ed.”

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updated figure to $8 billion

Posted by Maggie Hennessy,

Thanks for checking! The National Academy of Medicine estimate is actually closer to $8 billion, so I've corrected the article to reflect that. Thank you!

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Posted by Zsa Zsa,

Where did you get the figure for $11.7 billion? other than "health officials"

I'd like the reference you used if possible. Thank you.

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